Privacy represents a term that proves very hard to define as a single entity. In today’s interconnected world, there exist many forms of privacy with an equally large amount of ways in which society attempts to protect them. Google Earth has mapped the entire world with satellite images, with a special feature called Street View that provides even closer views of specific places from public streets. In the case of Google Earth and its Street View feature, perhaps society would find it better to define privacy in terms of when plaintiffs feel their privacy has been breached; in this case, there exists a difference between the legal and perceptual right to privacy.
With regard to legal protection of privacy, Google Earth critics claim Street View violates the four main privacy torts. The most basic tort deals with intrusion into an individual’s private space, with no publication necessary to have broken it. The second involves the public disclosure of private facts about such an individual. Third refers to the publication of false and highly offensive information about the individual. Finally, the last tort prohibits the appropriation of any part of an individual’s identity for commercial gain (Kelley, 2008). While these torts remain fairly broad in an attempt to cover different cases of breaches of privacy, they cannot be necessarily applied to Google Earth’s Street View, given the images show public places. At first, users of Street View may be surprised to learn that Google has mapped a great majority of the United States and part of the world’s streets utilizing a high resolution, 360-degree camera, including anybody outside while such pictures were taken (Spring, 2007). These photographs have been overlaid with Google Earth, providing close-up views of personal residences and public places, many times with people going about routine, daily actions. These seamlessly integrated images have also captured many people doing things they would rather keep off the Internet.
People caught in compromising positions by Street View argue that their privacy has been violated. Furthermore, they believe that the fear of being photographed in similar ways by the omniscient Street View camera may hinder the public in living their everyday lives, saying that this fear keeps individuals from acting “spontaneously.” They feel that Street View keeps people from controlling information about themselves, which many consider a right of privacy (Lavoie, 2009).
Yet Street View does not intrude on the privacy of the public in comparison to many accepted forms of technology, considering Street View documents public places. For example, many countries, such as the United Kingdom, have cameras positioned in various public places to monitor the public live, highly unlike the static, dated images Google started taking back in 2007. Being caught on camera in a public place does not give one the same rights as being unlawfully pictured inside a private building. Street View merely serves as a tool to those interested in learning more about their own environment. Those people caught on the Street View cameras do not represent the subject of the photos; the geography behind them does. In response to claims to the contrary, Google has blurred faces and license plates to ensure that the geographic information remains the main focus of its images (Segall, 2010).
Given the complication one finds when trying to define privacy, it seems to be easier to pinpoint its intrinsic value once one believes it has been violated, specifically the difference between an individual’s legal and perceptual right to privacy. However, Street View represents a tool comprised of public images, not meant to portray people, but geography. Until Google attempts to monitor the world in real-time, Street View will continue to provide a free, harmless public service.
Kelley, J. D. (2008). A computer with a View Progress, Privacy, and Google. Brooklyn Law Review, 74(187), 208-211.
Lavoie, A. (2009). The Online Zoom Lens: Why Internet Street-level Mapping Technologies Demand Reconsideration of he Modern-day Tort Notion of “Public Privacy.” Georgia Law Review 43(2), 604-613.
Segall, J. (2010). Google Street View: Walking the line of privacy—Intrusion upon seclusion and publicity given to private facts in the digital age. University of Pittsburgh Journal of Technology Law & Policy, 10(1), 23-32.
Spring, T. (2007). How the Web Works: google’s Street-Scene Machine. PC World 25(12), 131.