INTERNET LAW - Is Google Map Street View an Invasion of Privacy?

Martha L. Arias, IBLS Director
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Few months ago, you could see the photograph of a woman on her underwear just by clicking on Google Map Street View. The woman's picture was taken in real time when she was in her car with the door open. After numerous complaints, Google removed the image from its Google Map Street View feature. Google Map Street View (street view) is one of Google"s most recent creative features. It allows users to obtain a virtual and 'real time’ view of some of the United States streets. Besides being able to see street-level photographs, Google’s street view allows users to talk virtual walks, find restaurants, shops, or any point of interest (maybe your foe’s house), and explore other city point of interests like landmarks, cityscapes, etc. This is great; but scary.

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Few months ago, you could see the photograph of a woman on her underwear just by clicking on Google Map Street View. The woman's picture was taken in real time when she was in her car with the door open. After numerous complaints, Google removed the image from its Google Map Street View feature.   Google Map Street View (street view) is one of Google"s most recent creative features.  It allows users to obtain a virtual and 'real time' view of some of the United States streets.  Besides being able to see street-level photographs, Google's street view allows users to talk virtual walks, find restaurants, shops, or any point of interest (maybe your foe's house), and explore other city point of interests like landmarks, cityscapes, etc.  This is great; but scary.

Google's street view feature takes satellite pictures of some of the United States streets and makes them available for users looking for street information or a specific place of interest. Users may even take virtual tours to those places they dream to visit.  The feature is currently available for cities like San Francisco, Denver, New York, Miami, and Las Vegas.  No doubt, this is a remarkable feature. Yet, some of those satellite pictures, especially the ones taken from popular streets, may capture ‘real time' folks in compromising situations and make these scenes available to the entire world.  Then, citizens ask this question: is Google's street view feature violating our privacy rights?  

Google's spoke person, Megan Quinn says "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."  Google has been asked to remove some street view imagery but these requests have been relatively sparse.  Google argues its street view feature does not violate any privacy rights because Google, as anyone, has the right to capture street views.  Privacy activists are already expressing their concerns with Google street view offers, "We've never had the expectation of privacy in public places, but it's the technology that causes us to reexamine this. Computers have very long memories," said Pam Dixon, Director of a Privacy Advocate group in San Diego, CA.  

Not formal legal action against Google's street imagery has been filed yet.  Hence, privacy law attorneys say taking pictures of public places is legal.  "The law allows you to take a picture of anything you can see as long as you're in a public place," said Kelli Sager, a 1st Amendment lawyer in Los Angeles. Since Google's street view was launched just recently and it is only available from 5 U.S. cities, lawsuits are not piling up thus far.  As said before, taking pictures in public places is legal and there is not expectation of privacy in public places.  Thus, what could be the stand for a lawsuit against Google Street View?  Well, this cause of action is yet to be developed and this may occur when courts are willing to re-examine the concept of privacy in this high tech era.   

 Or, we just need to wait and see what expectations of privacy may subsist. 

 

Martha L. Arias, IBLS Director

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