Google Street View Raises Questions About Privacy, We Provide Answers

October 21, 2010
San Francisco's Ferry Building, with business listing in Street View

San Francisco's Ferry Building, with business listing in Street View

Last spring and summer, Google was embroiled in a brief but heated scandal involving data collection for its Street View service. America hasn't seen much fallout from the debacle, but courts in other parts of the world have dealt the folks from Mountain View a few setbacks. What does this mean for Google, for satellite navigation, and individual privacy? Let's see.

A recap

Just a quick summary of the story as it evolved: in April of this year, Germany asked Google to explain the sorts of information its Street View cars collect as they roll along highways and byways. Google explained that the cars collect three types of data: (a) pictures, which are stitched together to make Street View; (b) low-res 3D building images; and (c) names and addresses of open wifi networks. 

Items A and B weren't much of a problem: even though people are touchy about strangers taking photos of public places in this post 9/11 world, it's still legal. The wifi thing, though...well, that's far less cut and dry.

Google uses wifi networks -- just open ones, ones that aren't hidden -- to help pinpoint the location of Maps and Street View users. Essentially, those networks function in the same way that cell towers do: Google checks to see which cell towers and wifi networks your mobile device can "see", which helps pinpoint your location. Wifi is great for that purpose, because wifi networks have much shorter ranges than cell towers, meaning that they can provide more accurate location stats.

Google Maps for the iPhone

Google Maps for the iPhone

Germany

Germany, however, wasn't too keen on the idea of Google collecting all that info, and they asked for additional details. In the course of Google's internal investigation, the company realized that it had accidentally been collecting personal data from those public wifi networks. Oops. As a result, Germany forced Google to offer its citizens the ability to opt out of Street View. Google complied, and around the same time, the company announced that it would no longer collect any information about wifi networks, open or otherwise.

Strangely enough, all that tsoris may have been for naught. Initial reports indicated that Germans were flooding Google with opt-out requests, but the case may have been overstated. Today, 240,000 households have chosen to have their homes or businesses hidden from Street View -- which sounds like a huge number, but it's only 2.9% of the population.

Canada

Canada recently asked for its own review of Google's info-gathering tactics, and yesterday, a Canadian court found that Google had indeed violated privacy laws -- not because it had gathered wifi network names and addresses, but because it took in personal info from those networks, including whole emails. So far, Canada has no plans to sue Google, but the company does have to dispose of all data collected from wifi networks by February 1, 2011.

Our take

Google seems to have navigated these troubled waters pretty well, and its willingness to work with authorities and fess up to problems weighed in its favor. In both Germany and Canada, the intial hue and cry has subsided to a few murmurs on the fringe. We're not sure whether that means that people have gotten used to the idea of Google mapping, or whether they just wanted their voices to be heard. Either way, Google Maps and Street View can continue to dominate the field.

Google's triumph in the courts is good for satnav, too. Users will continue to have access to Google's free maps, and Google can continue improving accuracy. That's nice for people and businesses everywhere. 

For privacy, however, it's a mixed bag. At the moment. Google has struck a balance with which many consumers are comfortable. But change lies around the corner.

Think back a decade or so: remember when getting pictures via email or the web was kind of amazing? We all thought, "There's no way it can get better!" And then came video. Bandwidth and tech developments made that possible, and both continue to evolve. It seems inevitable that before long, Google Maps (or some Google competitor) will begin offering regularly updated maps, and ultimately, video.

So we wonder: will the world be so happy with Google (or whomever) when anyone can peek into our backyard at a moment's notice? Will we find ways to maintain a modicum of privacy? Or will we become so jaded by the oversharing that goes on elsewhere (lookin' at you, Twitter), that we won't care if our parents check in and see us skinny-dipping with the neighbors? We can't say for sure, but it might be time to invest in a good bathrobe.

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