The inherent risk posed to groups and nations by satellite images is obvious (see the “Security” portion of this blog). However, to what degree does Google Earth compromise an individual? A brief explanation of Google Earth and its features is necessary to promote meaningful discussion. First, Google Earth is a 3-D globe draped with geo-referenced satellite imagery and location data. The globes are extremely adaptable, in part due to their capacity to superimpose additional information layers over the original interface, and due to their maneuverability and ease of operation. One feature of Google Earth that is particularly pertinent to privacy is Streetview. A Google vehicle navigates roads while taking images with a 360-degree, 11 lens camera. The images are then stitched together to form an interface in which users can virtually explore the street as if they are there in person. With that background knowledge in mind, please read the following information about the contentious issue of Google Earth and privacy.
Through its data collection, Streetview has, rather unavoidably, captured compromising photos of individuals. From a fistfight to a minor smoking to a man entering an adult book store (Schroeder, 2007) to several males urinating alongside the road (D, 2010), many feel that having images of themselves posted to Streetview without their consent is a violation of their privacy (Lawless, 2009). To simplify the debate as to the legality of the images, it should be noted that four privacy torts – intrusion upon seclusion, false light, public disclosure, and commercial appropriation – exist and it has been proven that Google’s Streeview is not in violation of any of them (Kelley, 2008; Segall, 2010). However, many have called for a modification of the torts to bring Google to fault. Would such an expansion of the torts be justifiable?
Another potential violation of the privacy of individuals has resulted from the Google Earth satellite images. Justice has been brought to several individuals at the hand of information revealed by Google Earth. For example, one Long Island town was able to scour Google Earth for undeclared swimming pools. As a result, the town was able to raise $75,000 in licensing fees (The Week, 2010). The Italian equivalent of the IRS was able to discover that a business man had evaded taxes by declaring his home to be worth millions less than it actually was: a simple Google Earth scan of the home revealed – based on location and size – that he had clearly committed fraud (The Week, 2010). This raises questions as to the legality of the governmental usage of Google Earth to see things they otherwise would not be able to.
Before one formulates an opinion as to whether Google Earth and its features violate privacy, it is beneficial to know that Google Earth does a fair share of regulating itself. With regards to Streetview, individuals’ faces and license plates are removed or blurred (Lawless, 2009). Moreover, Google has made strides to control objectionable material (Segall, 2010). And with regards to the satellite images themselves, Google will blur or remove an image when prompted (Hearn, 2007). Also, they do follow government regulations already that restrict the resolution of images (Swartz, 2007). Are these measures enough? Or, is the infringement upon individual’s privacy too great to permit?
Personally, I do not believe Google Earth is severely infringing upon individual’s privacy. The stripping down of privacy is not just a byproduct of Google Earth but of the technology revolution as a whole. Moreover, I find the utility of Google Earth far too great to ban it or even reduce its capabilities. Google Earth is just one player in a large game of the democratization of information about individuals. To prohibit this information revolution would greatly inhibit innovation. Therefore, while I do admit there is some intrusion upon privacy at the hand of Google Earth, I do not find it justifiable to do anything about it.
D, (2010). 20 crimes caught on Google Streetview. Retrieved from http://www.criminaljusticeschools.com/blog/20-crimes-caught-on-google-street-view
Hearn, K. (2007, March 12). Terrorist Use of Google Earth Raises Security Fears. National Geographic News. Retrieved from http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2007/03/070312-google-censor.html
Hou, B. (2008, September 15). Google StreetView. Retrieved from http://ifyouseesomething.net/2008/09/15/google-street-view/
Kelley, J. D., (2008). A Computer with a View: Progress, Privacy, and Google. Brooklyn Law Review, 74, 187-230.
Lawless, J. (2009, April 4). Brits block Google ogler. The News & Observer. http://www.newsobserver.com/2009/04/04/45590/brits-block-google-ogler.html?story_link=email_msg
Schroeder, S. (2007). Top 15 Google Streetview Sightings. Retrieved from http://mashable.com/2007/05/31/top-15-google-street-view-sightings/
Segall, J. E., (2010). Google Streetview: Walking a 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, 1-32.
Swartz, N. (2006). Google Earth Scares Governments. Information Management Journal 40(2), 20.
The Week, (2010). 5 crimes solved using Google Earth. Retrieved from http://theweek.com/article/index/205915/5-crimes-solved-using-google-earth