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Is Google Maps a Threat to Privacy?

by Timothy Smithee
Matt Cardy/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Google Maps provides maps, satellite images and street level photos and enables you to add street-level photos through the Panoramio service. The online availability of maps and satellite images has raised few privacy concerns as the satellite images may be years out of date and are low resolution. The largest threat to privacy is Google Maps Street View. Individuals and governments have expressed concerns that this service is a threat to privacy due to the pictures and other data gathered.

Street View

Street View pictures might be considered a minimal threat the privacy as they show only what is visible to anyone walking down a street. Private areas such as university campuses or amusement parks are added by agreement with the property owner. When walking down a sidewalk, you're aware that you may be seen by other people, and as you glance at houses, the property owners are aware that people on the sidewalk can see the front of the house, including the windows. Courts have determined that photos of publicly available images like a person's house would not result in pain or humiliation for the home owners.

Privacy Tools and Failings

Although images in Street View are captured in public areas, there have been instances of Google Street View cars driving on private roadways and complaints about images captured through windows. Google automatically blurs people's faces and car license plates to protect privacy, but people can be identified by clothing and some vehicles are distinctive. Additional blurring is available on request, up to an entire house or car, and removal of images can be requested (link in Resources). Policies prohibit adding Panoramio photos that are an invasion of privacy, but this isn't defined. The onus is on individuals to find and report privacy violations. This may not occur until after harm has been done.

Wi-Fi Controversy

While capturing Street View Images, Google vehicles also monitor and collect information from Wi-Fi networks. In several cases Google has captured detailed personal information while monitoring unsecured networks. Many countries, including the United States and Canada, have expressed concerns to Google about the capture of Wi-Fi data during Street View mapping.

User Privacy

If you use Google Maps, usage data and searches are routinely recorded, though this is arguably no more or less of a privacy threat than the usual monitoring of Internet activity by Internet service providers and various online services. Using Google Maps on a smartphone requires reporting your location to Google, and this continues even when the Maps application isn't running.

Privacy Implications

Policies and processes to protect privacy limit, but don't completely eliminate, the threat to privacy posed by Google Maps. At present the Street View images are several months old, but more frequent updates will increase the threat the privacy. Satellite imagery is currently too low a resolution to be a significant threat to privacy, but Google is experimenting with using planes and high resolution cameras to significantly increase the detail in the photos. Everyone's public behavior is more public than it used to be, and what was once a chance of being seen is now a strong possibility of being recorded and distributed. The usefulness of Google Maps may be an acceptable price to pay for the loss of privacy. Faster updates and more details will increase the usefulness of maps and also increase the threat the privacy.

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