Google Streets View Project Manager Speaks About Privacy Concerns

Freakonomics has an interview with Stephen Chau, the product manager for Google Maps, about Google’s new feature “Streets View” and the resulting concerns consumers have had about their privacy after several people were caught on Google’s cameras sunbathing, leaving strip clubs, or um…whatever.

3. Did you address specific privacy concerns from the outset?

At Google we take privacy very seriously. Street View only features imagery taken on public property and is not in real time. This imagery is no different from what any person can readily capture or see walking down the street. Imagery of this kind is available in a wide variety of formats for cities all around the world. While the Street View feature enables people to easily find, discover, and plan activities relevant to a location, we respect the fact that people may not want imagery they feel is objectionable featured on the service. We provide easily accessible tools for flagging inappropriate or sensitive imagery for review and removal.

Each Street View imagery bubble contains a link to “Street View Help” where users can report objectionable images. Objectionable imagery includes nudity, certain types of locations (for example, domestic violence shelters) and clearly identifiable individuals, if those individuals request takedown. We routinely review takedown requests and act quickly to remove objectionable imagery.

Chau also discusses Google’s process for removing sensitive buildings (such as domestic violence shelters) from Streets View. What do you think? Is this a violation of privacy or a useful service for consumers? —MEGHANN MARCO

Google Maps Project Manager Speaks Out On “Street View”
[Freakonomics]
(Photo: Google)

Comments

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  1. dohtem says:

    Now that’s a great picture.

  2. Dan25 says:

    I can’t believe this sort of thing is legal. I wouldn’t want someone taking pictures of me or any of my property without my consent. What if people start using this to see when someone is taking out large amounts of money from an ATM? Or tracking someone to see where they go throughout the day. This is no bueno!

  3. dbeahn says:

    Like my grandfather said: If you wouldn’t want to see it printed on the front page of the newspaper, DON’T DO IT.

    Don’t like having a picture of you coming out of a strip club? Stay out of the strip club. Don’t want a pic of you peeing on google? Don’t pee in public.

    For goodness sake, take some personal responsibility. If you’re sunning your pale buns in a thong in plain view of a public street, then don’t whine about “people invading your privacy”. If you’re showing your ass to everyone that walks by, it ain’t a private show, now is it?

  4. dbeahn says:

    @Dan25: Um, dood? As stated quite clearly in the article, this is NOT REAL TIME. These are still pictures taken days, weeks, months or years ago.

    If you’re going to panic, at least panic over what’s actually going on.

  5. LowerHouseMember says:

    As much as I think I wouldn’t like it if my picture was up there, I think Street View is incredibly awesome.

  6. Islingtonian says:

    @Dan25: but all of the street views on google maps are taken from the street – so ‘private property’ that couldn’t be seen by someone in their car won’t be on googlemaps. i doubt that these images are updated frequently enough to track someone, at any rate.

  7. dwarf74 says:

    I can’t see this as any violation of privacy.

    You don’t have an expectation of privacy in a public place. Including on a public street.

  8. maddypilar says:

    You can zoom right into my bedroom window on Street View. I guess the relative anonymity of NYC is gone. I’ll start closing my drapes.

  9. dbeahn says:

    @maddypilar: So you can zoom in on google, like anyone on the street could do with a camera, or binoculars, or by walking closer?

  10. Buran says:

    @Dan25: Then don’t go out onto public streets. It is perfectly legal to take photos on public streets as long as you are not, say, using a super-zoom lens to peer into someone’s bedroom.

    This has been true for years. Why complain now?

    Oh, because it’s on the internet. That makes it all different. Riiiiiiiight.

    Or are you trolling, because it has been known for a while now that the Google photos are not live, and no one is going to stalk you with Google Earth/Maps.

    Don’t want someone to see you out in public … don’t go out in public.

  11. saram says:

    @ dbeahn

    I. Completely. Agree.

    Grandparents have the best advice. You know how they said never to leave the house without a pair of clean undies on? I was once in a car accident without any undies, and they wanted to cut my skirt off to get me out of the car.

    Always listen to your grandparents.

  12. Charybdis says:

    God forbid someone would want to find a domestic violence shelter. Let’s hide them so the people who need them can’t find them.

    Yes I know it’s about the recognizability factor, but that’s addressed elsewhere. Simply take a picture without people in the shot.

  13. AskCars says:

    if you peered into someone’s window from the street you would be considered a peeping tom. So I would think doing so from the privacy of a computer would be similar. Not sure what peeping laws are these days.

    Otherwise yes, this is shot from a car on a street so privacy can’t be expected when not zooming into windows etc. that normally you wouldn’t be able to do in public.

  14. Dan25 says:

    @Buran: Well then, i might as well just leave my camera in front of your house. I’ll record everything and then pick it up the next day. Its not real time, so that makes everything okay.

  15. ncboxer says:

    I’m not sure he’s peeing. This shows a different view- http://maps.google.com/maps?f=q&hl=en&q=Cabrillo+Hwy,+San+

    His bike is right next to him on the ground. His pants are a little low, but his arms seem too high for what is seems like he is doing. Maybe he is aroused by the hill and doing something else.

  16. zsouthboy says:

    Dan25,

    Stop it.

    I happen to be a photographer, and know my rights that you wish to trample on.

    It’s quite legal to take a picture practically anywhere in public, of anything, in this nation.

    Seriously. Even of you.

  17. Kornkob says:

    This has been hashed and rehashed dozens of times most notably by professional photogs. Images, even zoomed images, from a public place are legal.

    If you don’t want what you’re doing to be seen, don’t do it where you can see public spaces. It goes both ways, the seeing does.

  18. BStu says:

    @Charybdis: Jeez, can you understand that there ARE some people we don’t want to find a domestic violence shelter?

    In general, I’m a little bothered by this, but I think there are greater offenders in terms of public photography. The legality of this actually isn’t as cut and dry as you might think and laws vary from state to state. While I think the database application here would probably pass legal scrutiny, its not completely certain, either. Either way, it might be worthwhile to blur out faces that are visable in general, whether there is a legal requirement to do so or not.

  19. my98olds says:

    This site has a large selection of interesting StreetView finds:

    http://www.mapmole.com

  20. CRSpartan01 says:

    I think a lot of people are missing the point on why a lot of people are upset.

  21. jeffj-nj says:

    Alright then, CRSpartan01, why don’t you explain it? Why are people upset?

  22. Dan25 says:

    @zsouthboy: I use the ATM in public. Are you going to take a picture of that too? Parts of Nelis Airforce Base are located on a public road, try taking pictures there.

  23. dantsea says:

    @Dan25: I give you an A+ for emotional rhetoric. But seriously, enough. When you’re in a public space, you don’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy.

  24. Skeptic says:

    @Charybdis: Jeez, can you understand that there ARE some people we don’t want to find a domestic violence shelter?

    Fortunately, DV shelters don’t have big signs saying “Secret Domestic Violence Shelter” on them, so even if one was depicted it isn’t likely that anyone who didn’t already know about it would recognize it. Redacting it may only cause interest in it unless you redact huge swaths to conceal location of the targeted item.

  25. MalichiDemonos says:

    This is funny. I bet that none of you are even in any of the pictures. I bet most of the people that are on there are either laughing about having their pictures online or don’t even care.

    Admit it… most of you people complain are just looking for a reason to complain even though your not even involved.

  26. MeanMachine says:

    Juice by you, peeing dude!

  27. LatherRinseRepeat says:

    Yeah, I’d have to agree with others. When you’re in public, your level of privacy goes down. When you walk into a store, look above your head. You’ll probably see some security cameras taking pictures of you and everyone else around you. When you go to the ATM, there’s a tiny camera taking a very close up shot of your face. What about tourists taking pictures? I’m sure some of you are in the backgrounds of people’s vacation pictures.

    But even if you find yourself appearing on Google Street View, you can request to have the image removed. There’s a link you can click on.

  28. Beerad says:

    Nearly everyone is missing the point (probably including me). Yes, yes, it’s on a public street so there’s no right to privacy. But let’s face it, most of us feel comfortable spitting, picking our nose, or whatever we’re up to because we imagine we’re pretty alone on the street and nobody will catch us. Or if you have to take an emergency leak at the roadside, so what? At least it’s a one-shot deal, and if a passerby happens to see you no big deal.

    But posting it on the internet changes things. It becomes a “permanent” record of whatever you thought was your fleeting indiscretion. Sure, I didn’t care about the five hours I left my blinds wide open, but that’s because I didn’t expect anyone to take pictures into my house and post them for the universe to see.

    I think there’s basically been a paradigm shift caused by the internet, and people just aren’t accustomed to living in a world where privacy ain’t what it used to be. Until everyone’s expectations are adjusted (to “expect” that someone may be recording all of your actions in public), there’s going to be some friction. I bet if those folks leaving the strip club were told “Hey, by the way, someone will be randomly taking pictures of the front door at some point today” to put on the internet, they’d probably head for the back door.

    Legal? Yes. Fun, handy tool? You bet. Do I like thinking that all of my actions outside the home will be memorialized for all eternity? Not particularly.

  29. SnickerDoodle says:

    For anyone expressing the legality of photography,

    here is a link to a well written article about photographer’s rights in the States: http://www.krages.com/phoright.htm

    For Canada: http://ambientlight.ca/laws.shtml

  30. clarient says:

    Close your blinds if you don’t want people to see inside your house.

    Apparently some people are surprised that we live in a community, and because we live in a community, other people can SEE US!

    Google has an appeal process if you find yourself in an image you don’t want to be in. They’re taking pictures in public places, which last I heard was not against the law.

    I really can’t see any problems with this. Would you tackle a tourist that took a photo on the street with your house on it, just because they got a picture of your property?

  31. No matter what anyone else says some (probably lots) of people will see a difference between a few people seeing a tourist photo and potentially millions of people seeing an image on the Internet.

    That said, why isn’t there a web site dedicated to embarrassing pictures of people?

  32. Toof_75_75 says:

    @MeanMachine:

    HAHA Nice! That series has been really great so far!

  33. Starfury says:

    They haven’t done my street yet but have done a friend’s. Maybe I should put a big sign out that says “Google Sucks” and then see if it shows up.

  34. JohnsRUs says:

    I can’t understand why it’s so hard to for some of you to fathom how otheres feel uncomfortable. Beerad took most of the words out of my mouth, so just allow me to breifly reiterate: Yes it’s legal. Yes, some people should have closed their blinds. Just the other day I was taking a piss when i realized I’d left the blinds open. Oh well, I thought. If the neighbors see, who cares. But now that entire sites and blogs are popping up with entries that consist of “look at this funny thing on google maps” my one-time indiscresion is seen by hundreds, possibly thousands.

    One more point: if I were to go to maddypilar’s street, take a camera, and zoom in on her window…passerbys would be creeped out. Is she saw me, she would be creeped out. Now i can just go on google and not worry abotu the societal repurcissions of being a peeping tom.

    Again, i’m not arguing that this is illegal, i’m just saying I can understand why some people are creeped out by it. Isn’t that part clear?

  35. Chaosium says:

    @Dan25:

    “I can’t believe this sort of thing is legal. I wouldn’t want someone taking pictures of me or any of my property without my consent. What if people start using this to see when someone is taking out large amounts of money from an ATM? Or tracking someone to see where they go throughout the day. This is no bueno!”

    If you’re afraid of being seen in public doing a particular action, there’s always an option to do it online, or privately. Is your privacy or your convenience more important?

  36. sporesdeezeez says:

    @Beerad: Yeah, took the words right out of my mouth, too. I’m not sure I’m in love with living in a world with a “sentiment of invisible omniscience.” Is it legal? Almost definitely. Should you expect it? Maybe. But is it a social good? It seems doubtful. Alas, corporate actions are as yet not formally concerned with social good – generally, only market good. People surfing for candid shots of sunbathers have made a lot of traffic for Google.

    Taping my glasses together here, I’d like to see if I could start some discussion about what this means for the Fourth Amendment. I am sure someone more learned than I on these matters can speak more, but I believe the SCOTUS jurisprudence depends on a two part test; an illegal search involves a breach of an expectation of privacy, and said expectation must have been “reasonable.”

    “Reasonable” is determined by “society,” or at least the Justices’ view of it. This has led to weird stuff, but generally the idea is that if citizens going about their daily routine (which can include hovering over your house in the air, apparently) could have discovered the evidence, the police weren’t searching – just being observant citizen-cops.

    So, if a new concept of privacy from the public is developing, what new concepts of privacy from the state will develop? Will it become legal for police to take periodic snapshots with a camera aimed and zoomed inside people’s windows?

  37. sporesdeezeez says:

    Ah, yes, I almost forgot…let me give credit where it is due (30 years ago):

    Foucault also compares modern society with Jeremy Bentham’s “Panopticon” design for prisons (which was unrealized in its original form, but nonetheless influential): in the Panopticon, a single guard can watch over many prisoners while the guard remains unseen. The dark dungeon of pre-modernity has been replaced with the bright modern prison, but Foucault cautions that “visibility is a trap”. It is through this visibility, Foucault writes, that modern society exercises its controlling systems of power and knowledge (terms which Foucault believed to be so fundamentally connected that he often combined them in a single hyphenated concept, “power-knowledge”). Increasing visibility leads to power located on an increasingly individualized level, shown by the possibility for institutions to track individuals throughout their lives. Foucault suggests that a “carceral continuum” runs through modern society, from the maximum security prison, through secure accommodation, probation, social workers, police, and teachers, to our everyday working and domestic lives. All are connected by the (witting or unwitting) supervision (surveillance, application of norms of acceptable behaviour) of some humans by others.

  38. kcskater says:

    @BStu: Justice Scalia helped make it pretty cut and dry, and I thank him for it. Even photographs from the air into fenced/walled areas are perfectly legal.

  39. MalichiDemonos says:

    @JohnsRUs: “One more point: if I were to go to maddypilar’s street, take a camera, and zoom in on her window…passerbys would be creeped out. Is she saw me, she would be creeped out. Now i can just go on google and not worry abotu the societal repurcissions of being a peeping tom.”

    That sort of photography would be pointed at one general purpose and not even like what Google did. Now you went around with a camera strapped to the back of your head while you walked down the street… that would be a better example… instead you made your self out to be the perv that has a general purpose of getting candid shots of someone in particular in there house. Completely different subjects and ideas.

  40. BStu says:

    @kcskater: No, its NOT cut and dry. The issue today is photographs of identifiable individuals being used for commercial purposes without their permission. While I do think that Google would be considered legal, that question is not cut and dry and the privacy laws do vary from state to state. You may be allowed to take the photo, but its the use that is in question here and there are exceptions to publishing rights above the exceptions to the rights to take the photo. Photos of people in front of strip clubs may put the subject in a false light if they were simply walking in front of the building. Google Maps could be considered a commercial enterprise subject to ordinary restrictions of using a person’s image.

  41. MarkMadsen'sDanceInstructor says:

    I must admit that I love the street view project, it would make destinations so much easier to find, and would help with locating real estate, i.e. you could tell what areas are nicer without traveling there.

    In relation to the claim of putting individuals in a false light, this would clearly NOT meet the requirements, see the wikipedia entry:

    False Light

    One who gives publicity to a matter concerning another that places the other before the public in a false light is subject to liability for invasion of privacy, if:

    1. The false light would be highly offensive to a reasonable person; and
    2. The actor acted with malice — had knowledge of or acted with reckless disregard as to the falsity of the publicized matter and the false light in which the other would be placed.

    See Section 652D of the Restatement (Second) of Torts.

    The tort of false light involves a “major misrepresentation” of a person’s “character, history, activities or belief.” See Gannett Co., Inc. v. Anderson, 2006 WL 2986459 at 3 (Fla. 1st DCA Oct. 20, 2006.)

    In this case, there is no misrepresentation. Moreover, I doubt this would fall under the other invasion of privacy torts.

  42. MarkMadsen'sDanceInstructor says:

    I take that back, a better claim is that you MIGHT have a public disclosure of private facts claim depending on how strict the state law is. That claim would be stronger because truth would not be a defense in that instance. I still doubt that claim would succeed in court though.

    Moreover, what kind of people are innocently walking by strip clubs? Its not like strip clubs are located in ordinary business districts, they are usually only allowed in specially zoned areas. So the real question is whether or not an individual who is visiting a strip club has a right to keep that info private.

  43. Its not like strip clubs are located in ordinary business districts

    @Jeff from LA: I know of two strip clubs in the city I live in and the businesses around them are all perfectly normal: coffee shop, restaurants, clothing store. One’s near a police station.

  44. mopar_man says:

    I wonder if the people that are complaining have actually tried this out. The image quality is similar to a webcam at best. You sure as hell aren’t going to peep into somebody’s bedroom or catch any important details with the image quality.

  45. threedd says:

    Now we know what being a celebrity is like!

  46. RomeoPapaDelta says:

    That picture is my hometown. He is about 30 yards north of the pacifica police station. Probably not a good place to take a leak.

  47. lemur says:

    @Beerad: Ok, so now a picture of you picking your nose is going to be on the internet. A 100 years ago, the difference would be that instead of someone taking a picture of you, it would be the village chief gossiper who would see you and report it to everyone in the village. What’s the difference? Well, ok in the digital age, a million people who don’t know you will get to see you picking your nose. But are you really losing sleep over the possibility that people at the other end of the world who will most likely never meet you would see you pick your nose?

    At any rate, as several people have commented, there is legally no reasonable expectation of privacy in public places.

    Think before you pick, that’s what I say!

  48. InsaneNewman says:

    @RomeoPapaDelta:
    He’s not peeing… if you “move” further down the street and then look back at him, it’s clear that he’s leaning over to do something, and his pants are just hanging off his ass… either that, or he has the strangest way to pee I’ve ever seen.

    http://maps.google.com/maps?f=q&hl=en&q=Cabrillo+Hwy,+San+

  49. InsaneNewman says:
  50. Nickelking says:

    @Jeff from LA: “Moreover, what kind of people are innocently walking by strip clubs?”

    If LA means Los Angeles, try walking down the sunset strip to find out.

  51. Firstborn Dragon says:

    I think this is a possible lawsute in the making from Google. Let me explain why.

    Google is counting on PEOPLE to report what’s not legal. Let’s take a hypothetical situation here.

    Let’s say there’s a person stalking me, and they know what I look like, but NOT where I live. My picuter gets up on Google. My stalker sees my picture before I do.

    Let’s further say this guy’s a murderer who kills me and he found me BECAUSE of this picture on Google. See the problem?

    And there are real life examples of this:
    Witness protection
    People who don’t want to be found by someone
    Ex cons

    This may not be legal, but realistically this move is opening up Google to a lawsuit if anything goes wrong.

    We aren’t talking about Joe’s family vacation pictures here.

    Hell, what happens if they take picutres of little susie and a perv sees her and finds out where she lives and abducts her?

    AND if you shoot pictures of someone who’s permition you need to use them in a money making way, then Google could get sued over that.

    I don’t see this legal argument holding water, all things considered.

    If it were just street pictures? Fine. But throwing people into the mix is just asking for trouble somewhere along the lines.

  52. MentalDisconnect says:

    I see the privacy concerns, but really, look at the pictures- see how blurry they are. No one can stalk you. No one can ID you as the one who walked by the strip club. They’re certainly not going to see in your windows or see what you’re doing on the ATM. I’m paranoid, and I’m not worried about this. Would I change my mind if they got a pic of me scratching myself in a personal area on the internet? No, not really. I probably couldn’t be identified, and I could ask for its removal anyway.

  53. ThomasW says:

    People have an expectation of privacy even when outside even though legally they do not. People don’t expect to have every day actions captured and posted for the world to see.

    It seems to me that Google Street View is more concerned with getting as many street level images online as possible. They want this images to be as clear as possible and people are caught during their daily routine and posted.

    Microsoft also has a street level imaging program being worked on in conjunction with Live Search. There is currently imaging on these maps but they have a birds eye view and no street level content is really visible. Microsoft is working on a process to remove any identifiable images such as faces or license plates from their street level imaging.

    I wrote a post contrasting Google Maps Street View vs Microsoft Live Search Preview.

  54. Grrrrrrr, now with two buns made of bacon. says:

    I find it a little creepy, yet at the same time, utterly fascinating that you can take a “virtual tour” of someplace at street level.

    I could only hope one could write Google and say “Hey, that’s me peeing on my neighbor’s bushes” or “Hey, I’m the one sunbathing naked at the intersection” and hopefully they’d take it down or blur out my face so I didn’t have to endure the infamy of being plastered all over the internet.

  55. xyzzxy says:

    I’m not sure what I think. But this type of imagery is going to be more and more widespread. Google isn’t the only one making it available. Check out this project from Microsoft called HD View: http://research.microsoft.com/IVM/HDView/HDGigapixel.htm?F
    What do you think the HD means? I can zoom into the windows of the apartment building in the foreground. In one of them you can see they forgot to make their bed before the MS cameras swept by.

  56. Buran says:

    @Dan25: Be my guest. I’m an amateur photographer and I know what’s legal and what’s not. If I expect my rights to be respected when shooting I respect yours.

    Doesn’t mean I won’t give you a weird look or have the cops come check you out if I don’t know who you are and why you’re there and I feel creeped out (that sort of thing IS abnormal around here), but if they check you out and leave, why would I have a problem with it?

    See, I’m not one of those hypocritical assholes who thinks that rule applies to everyone but me.

  57. Buran says:

    @ThomasW: They can “expect” all they want but this has been hashed out in court before so their expectation is wrong.

  58. markwm says:

    @Firstborn Dragon: No, Google is counting on people to report what is offensive, not what is legal/illegal. As many have said, several times, taking pictures in a public place is perfectly legal, even if those pictures capture images of other people.

    Watch the news, when they have some sort of ‘man on the street’ shot. You see dozens, even hundreds of people in those shots. Do you think they stopped each and every person and asked permission to use their likeness in that footage? No, they did not. And they are not obligated to do so. This is no different.

  59. MaineCoast says:


    This is just what is needed… a tool to give anyone with an internet connection the ability to scope out any building and property or neighborhood of their choice in the US… and carefully decide how they want to use what they see… to harrass home or property owners… and find other new inventive ways to market to the owner or occupant… or for criminals or other lowlifes to pick and choose where and when they want to do their will.

    Will Mr. Rogers neighborhood remain the same?

  60. DirtCrashr says:

    It’s a little creepy to me, The Googleoids wandering aound out there are also densley, zombie-creepy – they’d walk obliviously straight out into traffic talking on cell-phones on Charleston and had to have crossing guards provided.
    Anyhow they already have a top-down satellite view of my old truck parked in our parking lot, and now a streetside view of my new(er) truck.
    IMO it’s a bit creepy and voyeuristic, and maybe that’s to be expected from a company half-started by a Russian dude familiar with a long-time Statist Population Observation Policy and with minimal personal privacy or anonymity expectations. Their motto is “Do no Evil” not “Don’t be Creepy.” Creepy suits them.

  61. DirtCrashr says:

    They’re in my backyard. They already have a satellite pic of my old truck (parked next to the garage, hidden from the street), and now they have one of my new truck parked next to the street. IMO it’s a bit creepy – and so are the Googleoids wandering heedlessly and oblivious between buildings off Charleston (the old Silicon Graphics bldgs.) They’d march straight into traffic talking on cell phones expecting to be saved by mere lines painted on asphalt – now they have sorta crossing guards to protect the Google-zombies. And don’t get me going about how teh-Suck they drive.
    From an anthro-culture perspective perhaps this is to be expected in the Age of Multicultural Non-Assimilation and Aculturation, by a company half-founded by a Russian intimate with a long-time Statist population-observation policy that allowed the individual very little enjoyment of public privacy. Even the Czars had a secret police force that observed and monitored the peasants activities – it goes way back pre-Stalin.
    OTOH their motto is something like, “Do no Evil,” which is infinitely more flexible in this post-modern world than “Don’t be Creepy.” Evil is a vague and possibly nonexistant term (derided by many has having no axis) while Creep is a direct, Identity Politics, label capable of use.

  62. Trackback says:

    Google’s new Street View feature has caused a predictable sort of hubbub. Privacy advocates are upset; one woman freaked out when she could see her cat through the window of her house; one man was caught peeing by the side of the road.

  63. DirtCrashr says:

    Sorry about the double post, anyhow you can tell my enthusiasm. I wonder how well They would be received while photographing homes if they drove down the side-streets of a small town in Nebraska, or Texas or…somewhere the Interw3bz have not yet entirely penetrated the locals’ psyche.

  64. Trackback says:

    1. Tired of Google Street View yet? Here, via TechCrunch, is the next step on the horizon: Microsoft’s Photosynth Project is developing a network of 3-D virtual maps depicting actual places. Meanwhile, 3-D street views of ten cities will launch this fall on Everyscape.