In defense of Google’s Street View, and thoughts on Internet privacy

Quick Summary. Google’s street view is simply a representation of reality on a specific day, and they have not highlighted any aspect of the dataset, and furthermore the dataset is comprehensive. Given the mapping between reality and the dataset that is inherent in something like Street View, one’s privacy on the day your photo was taken and one’s privacy in the dataset are commensurate, because your relative anonymity is the same in each. Arguments pointing out that certain people and websites can highlight compromising pictures are missing the point, and are like blaming camera manufacturers for the actions of paparazzi. If a company decides to single out a certain picture on somebody on Street View on your website, that company is the party violating privacy, not Google. Google is producing an unbiased representation of reality; just as in physical reality, it is the choices and actions of others who decide whether or not privacy is violated.

Recently, Google has been driving around various metropolitan areas (including Boston) in a fleet of funky-looking cars adorned with eight cameras mounting on their roofs (see below) profligately photographing everything within view of the street every few feet, and linking the resulting panoramic shots to their respective locations in Google Maps. Their eventual goal is to have virtually every building on every street in every major city photographed, such that you can click on a street and see a picture of the surroundings from that location. You’d have to be Mr. and Mrs. Boring to not think that’s cool.

Car used by Google to obtain panoramic Street View data.
Car used by Google to obtain panoramic Street View data.

Right now, the resolution is sufficient to find that bar from which you stumbled home one night but whose name eludes, or to get a decent idea about whether or not the Lake View Retirement Home really has one. As it grows more complete, it will be a profoundly powerful dataset, and will doubtless result in all manner of unforeseen applications. This will be especially true if Google actually uses higher resolution pictures. Do you want to see when a favorite business is open, but they don’t have a website? You could, in theory, check out the hours posted on the front of their store with sufficiently high resolution imagery. If you’re wondering about the legal parking hours on the streets near a restaurant you’re planning to visit, you could read the parking signs across town from your computer.

Unfortunately, reactionary privacy concerns have plagued the service since its inception, and if the service survives at all, it’s likely that it will be limited to low resolution pictures. Some of the criticism has predictably come from people who have been photographed doing things they shouldn’t, but much of the ire has come from people who simply think that having a picture of them taken while they were in public shouldn’t be allowed online. And I have to admit, I took pause when I found our own car parked in our usual spot:

Our car, as found on Google's Street View.
Our car, as found on Google

However, upon further reflection, I realized that it is unreasonable to object to this as a privacy violation, for reasons that are especially clear in this particular case. Quite literally, there is going to be a nearly one-to-one correlation between the Google Street View dataset and the real world. Thus, while your image might be available to everybody, so are millions of other images. One might expect that at any given moment, the proportion of people interested in the Google picture of the specific place you were the day the google car spotted you is very roughly the same as those interested in that specific spot in real life at any given moment. Thus, for exactly the same reason you only saw a few people on the street with you at the moment the picture was taken, it’s likely only a few people are interested, at any one time, in that picture.

As such, your relative obscurity, and therefore privacy, in Google Street View exists for the same reason it exists in real life: the whole world is not going to suddenly look at the picture of you for the same reason the whole world didn’t spontaneously decide to take their vacation to Prescott Avenue the day my car happened to be parked there. People focus on the fact that, technically, their picture is accessible to the billion or so users of the Internet. But that’s not really relevant. Technically, most of those people could also afford to travel to your old highschool’s library to look at the picture of you in the archival yearbook. What is relevant is the probability of any of them doing so. Thus, while I understand that it’s psychologically unsettling to have a picture of yourself on the internet taking out the garbage shirtless, probability dictates that you aren’t likely to be spotted by too many more people than were able to see you that day, anyway. (Unless, of course, you decide to be a schmuck and sue Google, thus bringing highly ironic media attention to yourself.)

Furthermore, this is nothing new. There has long been the possibility of finding yourself in the background of a snapshot that somebody has placed online, and people seem to readily accept this, perhaps because of their familiarity with the concept of photography. Perhaps the novelty of the Street View application is to blame for people’s skepticism. Or, perhaps it’s simply that a big, mean, corporation is behind it that leads them to think of this as different. But for whatever reason, publicly displaying pictures of a public scene taken from a public road has caused a tremendous hue, despite this being nothing new. My hope is that Google will not bow to the pressure, because I’m sure that people will eventually aclimate to this new “invasion” of our privacy, just as their predecessors in worry did over a hundred years ago when they realized the potential horror of being spotted in the background of a picture in the New York Times.

All of this leads me to the following proposal for what should constitute an online violation of privacy: An expectation of online privacy should be commensurate with your expectation of real-life privacy at the moment your personal information or likeness was captured. This means that the “primacy” of your likeness in the data set in which you find yourself (i.e. it’s significance relative to the total of the dataset) should be commensurate with your visibility in the location at which you were captured. For example, if you’re walking down the street of your small town, perhaps it’s fair that your picture is to be found among a data set that contains virtually every street in America, as will eventually be the case with Google Street View. On the other hand, finding the same picture blown up on the main page of would almost certainly be a breach of your expectation of privacy, as your prominence online would then be completely out of proportion with your prominence on the day the photo was taken.

One likely objection to my argument is that having your picture taken by Google could potentialy lead to prominent publication outside the scope of the Street View dataset. Wouldn’t that then be a violation of privacy, one for which Google is ultimately liable? True, perhaps it would be an invasion of privacy, but that doesn’t mean Google should be held accountable. Again, the same principle of correlation between the dataset and real world applies. If you gather a subset of the Street View dataset (i.e. a picture of a person) and publish it prominently, that is akin to taking a photograph of somebody and publishing it. This may seem an odd analogy to make, as the physics may not be at all the same, but the informational aspect of the actions are identical: in both cases you are focusing on and promoting one element of a large dataset. In the first case the “dataset” was real life, and in the second it was the Street View database, but in both cases the subject was anonymous until action was taken to make it otherwise. Thus, the person who extracted the Street View image and made the effort to publish it prominently should be the person liable for the privacy violation, not Google. Holding Google to blame in the first example would be like suing the manufacturer of the camera used in the second.

We have to stop treating publication on the internet as a black-or-white phenomenon when it comes to privacy. It is rapidly gaining the ubiquity of physical presence in terms of our communications, and our expectations for online privacy will have to adopt some shades of grey if we are to avoid a litigious free-for-all. Just as the level of one’s privacy varies by location in the real world, we will have to begin to see “locations” on the internet as falling along a similar continuum. That is, just as there can be relative degrees of anonymity in physical space, we must recognize that the same concept can exist in virtual spaces.

24 responses to “In defense of Google’s Street View, and thoughts on Internet privacy”

  1. Interesting observations. On the subject of violating online privacy, you might be interested in this case.

    Mary Spicuzza, a journalist for the SF Weekly, attempted to unmask an anonymous editor at Wikipedia who had offender her sister by urging other editors to take down her sister’s vanity article. She wrote an article about it — an interesting article about how the tormentor had bothered her sister, Jeanne Marie Spicuzza. You can read about the episode here:'_noticeboard/IncidentArchive372

  2. An Open Letter to the Wikimedia Foundation

    To Whom It May Concern:

    I do not participate on Wikipedia, nor do I use it as a source. I am none of the persons I am being accused of and do not suffer from Dissociative Identity Disorder, formerly known as MPD. My attorney, Richard Rosenthal, has been supplied with these facts along with a request that all false claims, slanderous remarks and defaming content concerning me be removed promptly from the site. Thank you.

    Jeanne Marie Spicuzza

    Comment by Jeanne Marie Spicuzza — February 13, 2008 @ 04:04PM

    I edited this story and I can assure you that Mary did not get fired for this story or any other. Mary decided to leave the paper to take a job with a local documentary filmmaker. She gave her notice before the Wikipedia story was published. She disclosed to me early in the reporting process her sister’s fights with Griot and her sister’s role is mentioned high up in our story. Bottom line: We stand by the story.

    Comment by Will Harper, Managing Editor, SF Weekly — February 26, 2008 @ 01:55PM

  3. User:Griot
    From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
    This user has been blocked indefinitely because CheckUser confirms that this user has used one or more accounts abusively.
    The abuse of multiple accounts is prohibited; using new accounts to evade blocks or bans results in the block or ban being extended.
    See block log • confirmed accounts • suspected socks • Checkuser request
    Categories: Wikipedia sockpuppeteers

  4. “technically, their picture is accessible to the billion or so users of the Internet. But that’s not really relevant.”

    I think it is relevant. In the real world it is unlikely for me to gather my hundreds of friends to instantly witness X in a compromising position. But with sites like, the online hordes will certainly prey on unwitting citizens. I am not proposing censorship, but claiming that Google is now competing for marketshare with paparazzi.

  5. Sujay:

    The point I was trying to make at the end of the essay was that the perpetrator of the humilation and privacy violation in your hypothetical is, not Google. The former are the ones who bothered to wade through the database and focus on specific images, and they are the digital paparazzi, not Google. If a photographer publishes a picture of you in public that he shot from the street, do you blame the photographer, or the camera company? Google is doing nothing other than representing the real world, making no selection and defining no prominence. If they focused on the people of one street, that would be a privacy violation, but they don’t. I think that’s one reason why the launched with so many cities, instead of just San Jose.

  6. Honestly if someone is that interested enough in you to scour through possible hours of photos to find you… so? Where is the real danger? If they are considering hurting you or stealing from you, won’t they already know where you live, or follow you to where you live? What information are they going to retrieve from this that they couldn’t figure out themselves, a lot more reliably.

  7. […] 尽管有一些信息隐私的考量,Google Maps 仍然在不断推广它的街景视图的服务。Windows Live Maps 虽然也曾经测试了一个类似街景视图的服务,Windows Live Local,并且该站点仍然可以访问,但已经不再有什么更新了。 […]

  8. May I add that Google is now blurring faces?
    This makes it even more difficult to stalk you, unless they already know who you are and where you live…

  9. I thought we should share the world. I mean if a person goes off the street and sees a car or someones privacy stuff, does this mean that we shouldnt be looking.

    i understand some people doesnt want their property to be on the web, but Google should allow users to control the streetview images other than themselves doing it. Just like uploading photos. Then this way its not their responsibility to think about privacy. Just put a note saying make sure your images are ok or something like that.

    But i really like the idea. Its best if its done around tourist areas and musuems etc, i think this would be more beneficial than just doing views of streets. Afterall who care about what your car or property looks like.

  10. Google streetview gives a perfect map of our country to any government or organization that would wish to do us harm.

  11. i think you are looking at the wrong end of the stick here. in my case and many that i have spoken to it is not a matter of you being on there personnally but your property and valuables being on display for the billions. criminals can have a good look at what you have and what your security is like high res pics or not. peodophiles could check out neighbourhoods with children etc etc. who gave you the right to show detailed pictures of you and yours across the world via the internet? whatever happened to the data protection act? this throws it out the window. i though the paparazzi were bad, violating peoples personal lives, now google are doing it to everone across the globe.

    • thanks for the comment, simon. why are you bothered by the fact that a criminal can look at your house as it was twelve months ago when google first drove by, but not terrified and offended by the fact that they can just drive up and look?!? if your answer is that it’s easier to look it up online and therefore more likely to happen, then you’re missing my point: given all the street pictures now online, why is a criminal more likely to look at your house versus all the millions of others online? they aren’t. with virtually everybody’s house now online, your odds are not increased one bit. if a robber is going to case your house, they are going to case it, online or off. the only thing that streetview changes is that some criminals save gas money by not having to drive by in person.

      the only valid objection to having your house’s picture online would be if your house were one of only a few online. but that’s not the case.

      as for what gives them the right: this is all in PUBLIC view, simon, and they are creating a digital reproduction of a public space without unduly focusing on anything and creating any more publicity for somebody or something than existed within plain sight the day the image was taken. have you ever taken a picture of a friend, and somebody you don’t know was in a background? should you get sued for showing that picture in public? maybe you should be if you zoom in on the stranger and plaster their photo all over the city. but there is a reasonable usage of that picture between the two extremes.

      the key word is reasonable. i think there’s a good case to be made that google’s streetmaps is just that. your reactionary hyperbole leaves no room for any discussion on what is reasonable.

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  13. Some good points made for sides of the argument. Ultimately I think that though internet privacy is perhaps sensationalized, it still merits close scrutiny as technological mediums make data collection more readily available.

  14. Love Eric Schmidt’s recent remarks regarding Google’s Street View. Apparently if you don’t want to be seen on the view, “Just move.”

  15. Damn shame anyhow about Mary Spicuzza having to “resign” from the SF Weekly. I wonder if her sister Jeanne Marie feels guilty about it?

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