Are Google’s (and others) Street View Photographs Privacy Violations?

Have you checked out the new Street View feature from Google? If not, it is a fun view of a couple of major cities as taken from a roving van topped with some special cameras. The low-resolution photos are all linked together for a virtual tour along city streets. Google is not the first to feature this with their map service, but hey, it’s Google! We all stand up and take notice, at least in the geek world.

Of course, any time a new service is launched that offers a unique view of our world, the right to privacy concerns are raised. In this case, I am not sure I agree with it though. The New York Times has an article highlighting a specific instance of a lady voicing her privacy concerns that is just one small point in the growing debate.
Google Earth was one of their first to bring up such concerns, providing a very public view of satellite imagery. Of course, this is done in a resolution that is less than personally identifiable. Later lawsuits requiring search engines to reveal search habits and history of individuals were an even greater concern. What they know about us online is scary. Now, with street-level photography, if you happen to be doing something less than flattering at the moment such a camera-equipped vehicle drives by, your actions might be immortalized for some time to come.

The concern here is your right to privacy vs the First Amendment right to document public spaces. I really am not all that torn on this issue as I feel public spaces are just that, public. Of course, I live in a fairly rural area, so the likelihood of me being documented is next to nothing. Still, I feel like if you are doing something in public view, you better be sure it is something you don’t mind the world seeing. What is the difference between what you are fairly consciously allowing your neighbors to see vs the whole world seeing that same thing? If you want something private, close the curtains or be sure you are doing that where no one can see.

This is not to say I am in favor of virtual peeping, but in our world of increasing digital exposure, we need to face reality. If you are out in public, there is a good chance your presence can be documented in some fashion. How often have you noticed that as you are casually at the park or anywhere, you happen to get caught in the background of someone taking a photo? Have you ever taken time to look in the background of your own photos or video to see what you didn’t notice you were capturing? It happens innocently all the time.

I am increasingly intrigued by new technology that links together all the digital media being published out there. I am extremely confident that YouTube and Flickr are just the tip of the iceberg as to what the near future holds in social networking media. As more of this media is publicly available, more technology will be developed to create better access to it, stringing together the collective effort into massive mindshare. I find it exciting rather than intimidating.

In the case of the “cat lady” mentioned in the NY Times article above, I think her complaint is petty but still representative of the concerning being voiced. Her blurry view of a cat in the window is the least of my concerns, but apparently high on hers. At least with Google, they offer the ability to request the removal of a photo, though in her case I am not sure if they will honor it.
So, word to the wise, realize public these days really means wide open to the view of the entire world. Be aware and mindful of it, and you have nothing to fear!

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