Cybersecurity,  Ethics,  Privacy

Google Street View, Opt in Only

As Siva Vaidhyanathan detailed in “The Googlization of Everything”, Google Street View is an application that allows its users to view a 360-degree, street level view of roads in a large number of cities and communities. The service was first launched in a few cities across the United States but quickly ballooned to thousands and then to numerous countries. The entire process of obtaining the images for the views is done via driving cars with special cameras around the cities, continuously taking pictures until the specified routes are captured. All of this is done without the consent and many times knowledge of the cities and communities. In this case analysis I will argue that deontology shows us that Google should have requested the citizen’s permission prior to sending out their fleet of image collecting vehicles to catalog their communities.

Luciano Floridi wrote about the intra-community transparency present in small, remote communities. He described the privacy aspects of living in such a small, close knit community. Small communities tend to allow for everyone to know everyone and their lives. Each resident can probably tell you where any other community member works or where they shop for groceries. What these small communities also allow for is minimal transparency to the outside world. Floridi describes how this is increasingly opposite from our current informational society.

In today’s digital information society, we are likely to know very little of our neighbors, let alone the rest of our community. The rest of the community, and in many cases, the rest of the world can know a lot about us. Google Street View does just this by taking pictures of everything around their vehicles on the route they take. This includes any cars, people, or other objects in view. If a person wishes they can have images removed, but this is only after the images have been made available online, to everyone else on the planet.

Google stresses in their public statements that Google and their Street View application respect everyone’s privacy and provide a service that is used by countless citizens around the world for numerous reasons. Assume for moment that a person’s spouse is on a business trip. He or she drives their vehicle to the location of their trip. During this trip, a Google Street View vehicle is in the community and takes a path down the street this individual lives on. Google captures images of another vehicle in their driveway. They live far enough away from their neighbors that the neighbors do not notice the new vehicle. The images of this new vehicle become available on Google Street View. Nothing seems out of the ordinary to anyone.

Fast forward a few months and one of the neighbors receives an article of mail that is addressed to one of their neighbors. It just has an address, no name. Like many people, they do not know the addresses of their neighbors, just their names and which house they live at. Wanting to get the mail to the right person, they go to Google Maps, type in the address and it shows them where the address is and lets them view the house via Google Street View. Once the images load, it is they see the previously unseen vehicle in the driveway. They form their own conclusions and head over to their neighbor’s home to drop the mail off. While dropping it off, they don’t see the vehicle they saw on Google Street View. They chat with their neighbor and casually mention the vehicle they saw and ask about it. The tension in the conversation increases when the neighbor offers no real explanation for the vehicle.

Google Street View has invaded the privacy of this person. They have taken photos that allow for the inspection of this person’s life. On the other side, Google Street View does not allow such invasion of their privacy. They only allow you to see what they have deemed necessary for you to see. According to Kant, this is a form of disrespect. While Google had intentions of creating a service that facilitates a number of uses for everyone, they have disrespected this person in the process. Had they asked this person for permission prior to photographing their residence, they may well have been told no.

In “Privacy as Product Safety” James Grimmelmann presents the idea of informational privacy is akin to product safety. He details the ways in which informational services, i.e. Facebook, are a lot like commercial products and that the laws pertaining to them should be similar as well. Grimmelmann provides a story about two women and their evening spent with the musician Bono. In this story, one of the women, Andrea, posts pictures of the three of them enjoying their evening for her friends to see, seemingly inconsequential to all involved.

The problem that arose was that the pictures were shared, unknowingly, with a large group of individuals that they were not intended for. This was due to a misunderstanding in the fundamental operation of the place they were shared. Andrea was a member of the group, and as such, the entirety of the group was viewed by Facebook as her friends. While Facebook was aiming to allow every user to share their lives with people they might otherwise not be able to, the way they did so was misunderstood. This led to an unintended oversharing of Andrea’s life. This breach of Andrea’s privacy, while self-inflicted, can be viewed disrespect as Facebook likely fully understood the workings of their software and neglected to communicate it a clear manner.

In the case of Google Street View, the images of people’s homes, neighborhoods, and cities are made available to everyone prior to receiving any permission from anyone. This deliberate design and functionality circumvents any pre-publication privacy that many individuals have come expect. Assume again a scenario in which a Google Street View vehicle has captured images of an individual’s property. Once the images are available online, a group of individuals in the town notice something that angers them. As a group they confront the individual and the confrontation escalates to violence against the person. Had the individual been fully informed on Google Street View’s policies and been allowed to opt out, this violence may well have not taken place. While Google Street View provides a service that enhances the lives of some, it has done so at the expense of everyone’s privacy. Casting people’s privacy aside can have unforeseen consequences. As it is everyone’s job to understand the consequences for their actions, so too can it be said that it is the job of Google to understand the consequences of their product and how it functions in society.

While Google Street View provides a service that some would argue is valuable, it has done so at the expense of everyone’s privacy. As such, I believe Google should have obtained permission to generate the images, let alone publish them online. As that did not happen, the only option is to request removal or blurring of the images that concern you. The process for requesting the blurring or removal, while quick and simple, is not readily apparent. I had search online for how to accomplish it after I spent several minutes attempting to locate the correct place. The problem with this, as I have found in my research, is that it is just a request. Google is not currently legally required, to my knowledge, to honor the request, and even if they do honor it, they give no timeline on having the images blurred. What recourse does a person have if Google simply ignores their request? That question came up in 2010 and Google’s then CEO Eric Schmidt off-handedly replied “Just move”.

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