Google Maps is a great tool, recently made even better with the addition of Street View, which offers photo illustrations of the directions supplied. The photo is displayed above the map and may be rotated 360 degrees. In order to get a complete set of photos, Google hires local residents to drive around with cameras affixed to the top of their cars. The resulting images are then compiled into the service.

While useful, the service has been a lightning rod for privacy complaints. Such is the nature of a service that takes pictures of people without their permission. To their credit, Google has allowed people to report images that may be inappropriate (read: embarrassing) and has switched to lower resolution images to make identification more difficult. Of course, the Web sites that draw on Street View for funny images know that it may be removed and therefore make copies of the image as soon as possible.

However, as evidenced by recent issues, there are still a lot of questions. A couple is suing Google, presumably for trespassing, after a Street View car drove up their private driveway (past a “no trespassing” sign). Photos of their residence were included in the service. Despite the possible negative PR, Google does not intend to settle the case and their position on the privacy issue is likely surprising to First Amendment advocates.

Google’s argument in the media revolves around the (not unsupported) contention that privacy in our Internet culture is just an illusion. First, they point out that the couple voluntarily posted photos of the house in a real estate listing. Since the photos were already “out there,” there would presumably be no harm done. However, this point ignores the control element: the couple was always aware of this use of their data and was able to pull it from the web at any point. Moreover, it was a use specifically targeted at others interested in buying the house, not the general population.

Second, Google says that by bringing attention to the photos, the couple has caused themselves more damage than Google could have done on its own. Instead, Google posits that they should have simply recommended their takedown. Essentially, the search giant is asking individuals to forgive its intrusions into their life and to opt out if they don’t like it. This shows the catch-22 of the situation: Google wants a free pass because there is only an illusion of privacy, but if there is no privacy then it is because Google has found ways to incrementally take it away.

Finally, Google argues that others may have access to the private driveway despite the “no trespassing” sign: namely, drivers turning around and delivery men. Like the first argument, this reasoning is also missing some critical contextual elements. Drivers turning around have only the briefest of encounters with the property and do not affect it in any way. However, if they took pictures and then tried to profit from them, it is probable that they’d find themselves in the same situation as Google. A delivery man is presumably a licensee or an invitee who is on the property to perform a function of value to the property owner. Google’s agent was on the property without the permission of the property owner to do something that the property owner prohibited. This seems like the definition of trespass.

Is there a solution? As is often the case, the best outcome for all involved depends on a compromise. The mapping service is a valuable tool, but it clearly violates the privacy expectations of some individuals. The ideal system would use an opt-in mechanism, which would give the control over the data back to the owner. Google could do this by mailing a notice to houses that have been photographed requesting their permission to be included. Should this be too burdensome of a method, Google could be required to pay a fee to the local government to be distributed among the residents as a means of purchasing the right to display the pictures. These methods assure that, while moving forward into the technological age, we are still able to retain some control over our privacy. Even if it is truly just an illusion, that illusion is worth a great deal.

– Steven Reilly

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