How Google Blew It with Street View

As I just mentioned, Google recently announced plans to blur or otherwise obscure people’s faces in the Canadian version of the Street View product. After a brief conversation with my colleague Chris Hoofnagle, I’ve come to realize that in their launch of Street View, Google blew a chance to really take a leadership role in protecting user privacy.

Google released Street View to much criticism, given the prevalence of visible and identifiable faces and license plates captured by their fleet of camera-toting cars trolling our streets. To remove yourself from the service, Google first required submission of your legal name, e-mail address, a copy of your driver’s license or other government ID, and proof of your association with that address (letterhead, utility bill, etc). This, of course, created even more privacy concerns, and Google eventually backed down on this set of requirements, instead asking for only your name and the image location.

Later, Google loosened the requirements further, allowing anyone to request the blurring of a face or license place, even if the identifiable image isn’t you/yours. And now it seems certain version of Street View will automatically have all faces and license plates automatically blurred.

These are all positive moves by Google, but they are all reactionary. They reveal Google’s adeptness of responding to criticism over user privacy, and little initiative in proactively protecting that privacy with these kinds of products.

This isn’t much of a surprise given Google’s apparent position that since people are in public, they have no right to privacy. Consider the comments by Philipp Schindler, head of Google Northern Europe, that appeared in the German Spiegel Online (as translated by Philipp Lenssen):

The Street View feature includes only those photos taken from public grounds. The imagery is not different from anything each of us can photograph themselves – the kinds of things you’d see when you walk the streets.

Such a sentiment has no understanding of the “contextual integrity” of one’s privacy in public. Yes, someone might happen to be standing on the same street corner at the exact date and time that I am walking by and take my picture. But that is one person who was lucky enough to have good timing, and one photo in that person’s camera. Most people expect a handful of strangers to be able to view, and perhaps take note, of one’s public actions. But it is a difference in kind when those actions are digitally recorded, indexed, and viewable by millions through the world’s leading provider of information.

Further, consider the justification provided by Peter Fleischer, Google’s Senior Privacy Counsel, from this article:

The United States has “a long tradition of saying that it is legal and appropriate to take pictures from public spaces and publish them,” Mr. Fleischer said.

I am uncertain as to his claim that the U.S. (courts, presumably) have a “long tradition” supporting the “appropriateness” of publishing images from public places. Any discussion of appropriateness would certainly be contextually bound, and shouldn’t be considered a blank check to publish any and all public images online. Even so, the fact that U.S. courts say its OK doesn’t mean Google should do it. (“Don’t be…”)

Google really missed the boat on this one. Remember, Microsoft had already released a similar product with the same privacy concerns (although few noted it at the time), and to really take a leadership role in protecting user privacy, Google could have done the following:

  1. Make use of their own facial recognition technology to automatically scan the Street View image database to identify and blur all faces, thereby protecting privacy and differentiating themselves from Microsoft’s offering. This should be done in all Street View products, not just the Canadian version.
  2. Make reporting inappropriate images easier by placing a specific  “report this image” link on each image screen, not just a generic “help” link.
  3. Think harder about privacy in public, and recognize that just because a random person can take another random person’s picture in public doesn’t mean there’s no difference in having a similar image available on Google.

Of course, its not too late to make these changes…

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