Google’s Street View may violate Canadian Privacy Laws

Several months ago, web giant Google unveiled the latest feature of their popular mapping website, Google Maps. Street View allows users to get a panoramic view of selected locations around major cities in the United States. Now it’s being suggested that Canada is next on the list for this feature, and there is controversy brewing.

There have been complaints about the existing Street View images; that certain images of a private nature have inadvertently been put on the internet by Google. Among the controversial images are views into homes through open windows, people mooning the camera, and people with their underwear peaking out. Others complain about revealing information, such as Street Views showing groups of people entering or exiting places of religious worship, and vehicles with their license plate numbers visible.

But is Street View legal, or is it invading people’s privacy? So far, in the US, it seems as though no one has been able to (or tried to) stop Google from showing any photos in Street Views; although Google has voluntarily removed a number of images from Street Views which show controversial subject matter. The argument is the same as that used by the paparazzi: The photos are taken from vehicle-mounted cameras on public streets, and any photographs of something visible from public places are not subject to privacy. In the US, private investigators have been taking photos like this for years – so have the police; but neither group has generally been putting photos on the internet for public consumption.

Google may, however, end up censoring certain images when it starts printing Street Views of Canada. David Utter suggests that it is less legal and more political reasoning that leads to this decision, as Canada has a government official in charge of privacy, unlike the United States. However, there are legal differences between the US and Canada. In Canada, there is some obligation on the part of a business which is disclosing personal information to obtain consent, and it is suggested that some of the Street View images could constitute personal information based on the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Document Act.

It is an interesting question as to whether Google should be obligated to censor its street view images. Any one of us could go down to any public street and see people walking down the street, cars with license plate numbers, or someone standing on their balcony; we could even take a picture. But should this be catalogued and available on the internet? It’s one thing to have a choice in the matter; to be shown a photo and asked if one authorizes Google to use the image; it’s another to take the photos relatively secretly, and post them on the internet without any word. We all know that we’re on camera dozens of times a day when we walk around – mostly security cameras for various businesses; but the records of those cameras are not published, or intended for publication.

It seems relatively invasive to allow a company to post photos of one at their place of worship, or getting the mail in their pajamas, or of their license plate numbers compared to the benefit to Google of including such images (I can’t see any real benefit other than avoiding the work involved in cleaning the images up). Google has suggested they may blur faces and license plates for Canadian images, but I can think of a number of circumstances in which a person standing in front of their home or other identifying location could be identifiable just by their placement; this blurring may not be sufficient to protect the privacy of Canadians. But on the plus side, Google is acknowledging privacy rights, which is an important starting point, which will hopefully lead to less a less invasive Google Street Views.

2 Comments
  1. Creepy or Innovative? Either way it’s violating some IP law.

    After reading the above comment, I ventured onto Google, to attempt to discover what all the hype was about. At first, total fascination took me over. But then I became concerned. The idea behind Street View is rather unnerving when you think about it. Although none of the faces were clearly visible and license plates were blurry, I began to wonder what the sense is in such technology.

    Yes like the author says, it is likely your or I are caught on camera daily, but for completely different reasons. The daily photos are usually for safety and security, not for nosiness. The images from security cameras are not being published or made available to the whole world. Sure, by chance they could capture an accident or some sort of problem, but I highly doubt the goal behind “Street View” is that.

    This new technology could bring stalking to a whole new level. The argument that its’ a public place and therefore anyone can photography anyone else is one thing but to publish it for the whole world to see is quite another. This doesn’t even address the other issues besides privacy. What about copyright and trademarks? Those rights are being infringed to. Sure, Google is addressing concerns over privacy, but in the end are they really going to care? What legal sanctions are in place to stop this when it crosses borders? This is just another peg in the international debate over privacy, emerging technology, and international borders.

  2. Google StreetView is amazingly useful tool. You can use it to travel the world (well the major US cities at least). You can check the operating times of grocery stores and parking lots. You can trail the streets looking for a hostel without all the walking. You can check out your dream condo’s location without all the hassle. I thought all Canadians would welcome another way to avoid leaving their cosy firesides!

    New inventions are always eyed with suspicion and fear. But so what if your on StreetView? The majority of people captured are unrecognisable to anyone other than friends and family. So what if your leaving your place of worship? Unless your place of worship is neo-Nazi training camp what have you got to be embarrassed about?

    People argue StreetView could be used to stalk people. Images are taken from one moment in time, it does not follow people around documenting their every move.

    What about the people caught sunbathing or dressing? Well I suggest keeping the image and when you’re old look at it and say ‘wow I looked good!’. If you are not so young or not so hot then see it as a piece of advice – keep your curtains closed and your clothes on when in public!

    So camera-shy Torontonians, I suggest keeping your eyes pealed because Google StreetView will arrive, whether welcome or not. Should you spot a car on Bloor with a roof camera then grab the nearest paper bag and hide!

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