Google Shows Its True Colors, Says Privacy Cannot Exist in the Modern World

Posted on August 25, 2008
Filed Under Culture & Technology |

One doesn’t need to be incredibly perceptive to detect that while Google professes its respect for privacy, its actions demonstrate a profound disregard for it.

In its efforts to “organize the world’s information” (and make lots of money doing so), the more information Google collects, the better.

This, of course, includes information on Google users and as Viacom’s lawsuit against Google , there’s an awful lot of it.

When Google launched its Street View initiative last year, which enables Google users to view street-level panoramic photographs on Google Maps, it didn’t take long for people to become aware of the privacy implications.

As reported by The Times Online:

…within hours of the photographs of downtown San Francisco and New York hitting the internet, bloggers were posting images of people, their faces visible, being arrested, sunbathing and urinating in public.

While Street View may have been disturbing, so long as Google’s photographs captured people in public locations, there was no reasonable expectation of privacy and thus no realistic legal recourse for anyone caught by Google’s cameras, at least in the United States.

According to Stephen Chau, Google Maps’ product manager, “Prior to launching Street View, we reached out to several privacy and public service organizations to discuss the new feature and solicit feedback.”

He also stated:

At Google we take privacy very seriously. Street View only features imagery taken on public property and is not in real time. This imagery is no different from what any person can readily capture or see walking down the street.

This statement, unfortunately, has proven to be false.

Earlier this year, a Pennsylvania couple, Aaron and Christine Boring, sued Google for Street View photographs that were taken of their home. According to the couple, the images had to have been taken from their driveway, which is marked “Private Road.”

The Borings claim that one of the reasons for the purchase of their home was the seclusion afforded by the private road and that Google’s actions have not only invaded their privacy, but devalued their home and led to emotional distress.

The experience of the Borings appears to be quite common.

According to an investigation by The Press Democrat, more than 100 private roads in Northern California’s Sonoma County have been photographed by Street View’s cameras.

The Press Democrat’s Nathan Halverson found that:

In Sonoma County, the company has sent its car-mounted cameras up more than a hundred private roads, driving past “No Trespassing” signs, through open gates and even skirting a barking watchdog.

Halverson notes that in Google’s response to the Boring lawsuit, it observed that “There is nothing around their home intended to prevent the occasional entry by a stranger onto their driveway. There is no gate, no ‘keep out’ sign, nor guard dog standing watch.”

Yet the Sonoma County photographs uncovered by The Press Democrat reveal that those things are not barriers to Google’s camera.

Larry Yu, a Google spokesperson, stated that Google’s policy is “to not drive on private land” and initially claimed that its Street View drivers are given specific routes to follow.

Yet when confronted with a statement given to the Press Democrat by one of Google’s Sonoma Country drivers to the contrary, “Yu retracted his assertion.”

Of course, this is moot since Google believes that it has every right to photograph on private property.

In its response to the Boring lawsuit, Google’s attorneys claim that if you “live in a residential community in the twenty-first-century United States…every step upon private property is not deemed by law to be an actionable trespass.”

Showing disdain for privacy, they go on to claim:

“Today’s satellite-image technology means that even in today’s desert, complete privacy does not exist. In any event, Plaintiffs live far from the desert and are far from hermits.”

This echoes the same sentiment made earlier in the year by Google evangelist Vint Cerf, who told attendees at a luncheon earlier in the year that “there isn’t any privacy, get over it.”

While Google feels that complete privacy does not exist, trespass to land is a tort.

In the case of the Borings, I cannot speak to the merit of the claims made. While Google’s attorneys seem to dismiss the difference between “invitees,” “licensees” and “trespassers” and don’t seem to understand that the airspace over land is completely irrelevant to a discussion of Google’s Street View, it’s not entirely clear if the Borings’ claims will stand up.

But a person like Betty Web, whose private road marked with multiple “No Trespassing” signs Google traveled one mile down to take photographs, would pose a much more significant challenge to Google’s attorneys if she decided to sue.

Perhaps the most disturbing thing about Google’s arrogant approach to privacy rights and complete and utter disdain for the rights of property owners is the fact that Google believes that the burden is on everyone else to deal with its actions.

In response to the Borings lawsuit, Google’s Yu stated:

It is unfortunate litigation was chosen to address the concern because we have visible tools, such as a YouTube video, to help people learn about imagery removal and an easy-to-use process to facilitate image removal.

We absolutely respect that people may not be comfortable with some of the imagery on the site. We actually make it pretty easy for people to submit a request to us to remove the imagery.

Just as Google has told Viacom that its is really Viacom’s problem to deal with, Google apparently believes that individuals whose property Google has trespassed on should be responsible for responding in a friendly fashion to Google’s invasion.

Hopefully, individuals like Betty Web will teach Google otherwise.

This might even be in Google’s best interests. After all, there are states where “Castle” laws are interpreted pretty broadly and I can’t help but think that Google is putting its Street View photographers in harm’s way by encouraging them to trespass on private property.

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3 Responses to “Google Shows Its True Colors, Says Privacy Cannot Exist in the Modern World”

  1. Leyton Jay on August 27th, 2008 7:32 am

    I think that in the modern day ideas about privacy are simply changing, rather than being eroded.

    Being photographed by and being visible on Google as you walk down the street isnt an invasion of your privacy; that was never a private moment!

    All its doing is showcasing a random public moment, I think people get freaked out by the fact that a random moment they cant even remember was captured by someone and is available to anyone.

    It’s just a bit weird, that’s all. In the same way that seeing a woman wearing trousers in public was a bit weird before the 1940s. But people got used to it, times change, ideas change.

    Google is changing the world by providing unheard of access to the world (using Maps). As soon as people realise that information itself is not evil we’ll all be better off.

    Terrorists use Google Maps to plan attacks; so what? Should we take away Google Maps? They’d just go back to normal maps and we’d have to take those away too if we’re being serious about this stuff!

    When a bomb drops, do people blame Newton for discovering Gravity and the Laws of Motion? I think not.

    People need to get a life if this kinda rubbish really scares them.

  2. Shayne on August 27th, 2008 9:13 am

    Good post Drama, It’s got me thinking… Do you think that these types of issues will raise a new breeds of lawyers? If there is such a thing as “lawyers ambulance chasers” to get clients, then will lawyers soon see the potential of helping people randomly who they’ve found online have had their privacy rights disregarded?

  3. Drama 2.0 on August 27th, 2008 9:20 am

    Leyton: apparently you didn’t read this post very carefully. When Google photographs you walking down the street (or urinating in a back alley), you have no expectation of privacy.

    This post, however, addresses the fact that Google has been trespassing on private property and that it believes it has the right to do so in blatant disregard of well-established law.

    Shayne: it’s probably not only possible but probable. :)

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Drama 2.0 spikes the Web 2.0 kool aid by providing critical analyses of Web 2.0, its people, its startups and its impact on the world of media. Other topics are explored when Drama 2.0 has been drinking too much 1975 Dom Perignon. Read more about the Internet's version of Keyser Söze here.