Online Aerial Maps and Privacy Rights

Apartment buildingThe LA Times has a story about whether online satellite/aerial photography services Google Earth and Windows Live Local show too much, whether its possible these services violate one’s privacy by enabling users to zoom in and see my backyard (here, 6 foot high fences for privacy are irrelevant). The security issues of these popular services have been discussed before in terms of national security (see here and here), but I haven’t seen the press deal with issues of personal privacy as they relate to these desktop satellite imaging technologies.

The article quotes a statement from Microsoft responding to possible privacy concerns with their Windows Live Local tool:

It is understandable that when some people first see the aerial or bird’s-eye view in Windows Live Local, they may get the wrong idea that we can zoom in to recognize them, read their car’s license plate and otherwise obtain personal information from the images [but] the image resolution provides more privacy than does the average flight proximity of a helicopter.

Comparing the image quality to those available from helicopter flyovers is a strawman argument. (Andy Sullivan’s reaction falls victim to similar straw-related fallacies.) There aren’t archives of photos from helicotpers widely available to the average citizen; but any Internet user can search a wide array of quite detailed satellite photos of properties across the globe. The issue isn’t whether these images are the highest of quality, but whether the content that is viewable on these images that are indexed and searchable on the web might pose privacy concerns to those who would rather not have the contents of their property exposed to public scrutiny.

One thing Andy does suggest makes sense: let individuals have their property (like my apartment building shown above) blurred out from the archive.

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