Google Street View And The California Constitution

Just because we can do something, it doesn’t mean we should do it. That’s the lesson Mary Shelley’s gothic novel Frankenstein meant to teach readers, and it’s a concept human beings seem doomed to grapple with in light of should-never-have-done-this inventions like the atom bomb, genetically modified foods or aerosol. Google, with their love of interesting technology, held a meeting at some point in the past couple of years in which they made the classic human choice – we can do it, so let’s! And that’s how the world ended up with Street View which has almost immediately drawn criticism for all sides for being a brash invasion of citizen privacy.

Some time last year, Google sent their camera-mounted cars through Sonoma County, California – a region made up of 3 small cities and a smattering of little, quiet towns. Google then compiled all of the images they captured into their relatively new Maps application, Street View.

To see Street View yourself, go to Google Maps and type in an address. If the Google camera cars have been on the streets in your part of the world, you will see the option to select ‘Street View’ within the map. All streets which have been recorded are then outlined in blue on the map, and by clicking on the location of your choice, you’ll be shown an interactive image like this:


View Larger Map

You’ll note that I’ve chosen a California shopping center for the above example, and I made that choice selectively because I believe that Google’s intentional documentation of private property isn’t just invasive snooping, it’s actually in violation of the California Constitution, Article I, Section I which states:

All people are by nature free and independent and have
inalienable rights. Among these are enjoying and defending life and
liberty, acquiring, possessing, and protecting property, and pursuing
and obtaining safety, happiness, and privacy.

*Emphasis is mine

I’m not alone in my icky feelings about what Google has done. When Sonoma County’s local newspaper got wind of Google putting their region on the map in a way that isn’t just showing aerial views of the lay of the land but is, in fact, showing 360 degree views of private homes, house interiors through windows and private individuals, they printed quite a good article on the topic. They spoke with Google spokesperson, Elaine Filadelfo, who declared,

“It is our policy to only gather photos on public roads. We’ll certainly take down images taken on private property.”

Google’s camera car drivers clearly aren’t aware of Google’s policy, as the article details:

Google went past a gate with a “no trespassing” sign and captured images on private property. Several residences can be seen on the property, including an up-close shot of someone’s living room window.

I’m afraid Google’s offer to take down photos of private property isn’t cutting it for me for 2 reasons:

1) With the exception of public lands, all property is private. Unless you live in a historic landmark, if you noticed someone snooping around your property with a camera, taking up-close photos of your doors and windows, the layout of your yard’s entrances and exits, and the interior of your home as seen through your windows, you’d call the police and the trespasser would likely be incarcerated. Google’s offer to take down images of private property would basically defeat the purpose of their own application – they’d have to remove every privately-owned home from Street View and what would be left?

2) Even if an offended party were to get Google to take down an image, they have no control over what may have been done with the image during the time it was live in Maps. The image could have been copied and published on dozens of other websites by the time it’s taken down.

It’s also not going to ‘do it for me’ to say that it wouldn’t be illegal if you were walking down the street with a friend and took a photo of them that happened to have someone’s private property in the background. Google’s intent here isn’t vague or accidental. They clearly mean to make a photographic document of every home in America, and powerful cameras are enabling them to do so in lifelike detail, without any permission from cities, towns or property owners. As the newspaper example shows, Google is not even respecting No Trespassing signs in their quest to index the world.

My searches using Street View and Maps in general also show me that, in addition to casing private homes, Google has photographed government buildings, military structures and prisons. I can’t help wondering what the government thinks of that.

What Does It Mean To Be A Private Citizen Who Owns Private Property?

I’ve cited the California Constitution above because it was the first thing that came to my mind when I learned that Street View captures not only detailed views of private property, but also of human beings, including children. In my state, this article and section of the constitution have been used repeatedly in countless cases to defend citizens’ inalienable rights to be private and safe in their homes.

The major objections I’ve encountered so far to Street View include that it will enable burglars and other nefarious individuals to plan crimes against property and people in a way that was never imagined before. It only takes a little bit of thinking to see that a person with evil intentions could benefit hugely from a tool that not only shows them where all your home’s entrances and fuse boxes are, but may also show them who lives in your house. Elderly people, children, handicapped citizens? Why would Google put data like this into criminal hands?

I’ll answer my own question by suggesting that, like so many inventors, Google is so caught up in the amazing possibilities of burgeoning technology that their view is dangerously insular. Remember: just because we can do something, it doesn’t mean we should do it? Google is caught up in the ‘can’ and only lawsuits will teach them to start thinking about the repercussions of ‘should’.

If one child is kidnapped, if one house is robbed, if one battered woman’s whereabouts are discovered by her abuser because of Google’s Street View, has our society gone so tech-crazy that we’ll still call this tool a benefit to man? I leave the answer to that up to you, but hope it won’t be the tried-and-true ‘guns don’t kill people’ argument. I need to believe that we’ve evolved beyond rhetoric like that. We know very well that our society isn’t made up entirely of good people. We know that there are criminals amongst us and that the responsibility for protecting the most vulnerable members of our society is really ours.

Google’s technology is forcing Californians to confront what it really means to be a private citizen and to own private property. I expect to see this fought out in court, repeatedly.

Things That Might Be Great To Know

If you’re planning to move house, it might be great to know how much money everyone in a given neighborhood makes so you can determine whether or not you’ll be able to afford to live there.

If you’re an employer, it might save you money to know whether or not a prospective employee has had a serious illness like cancer or MS.

If you’re a politician, it could help your campaign if you could hear what your constituents are really saying about you when they talk on the phone.

Does Google, or any other entity, have the right to give you this information about other people, even if it could be construed as a benefit to you? I say, no. And I’m saying no as a Local Search practitioner, who thinks Google Maps is cool, who empathizes with the oohs and aahs that must radiate from the Googleplex every time some new technology is invented there. I absolutely recognize that Street View could be very helpful in finding your way around a town, but I’m not willing to give up my cherished personal privacy for the sake of a gadget.

In my book, Street View has crossed a line, and I would support laws that uphold my state’s constitution in the matters of privacy and consent. In closing, I’d like to point out that when my friends and colleagues have visited the Googleplex, they have only been allowed to take photographs in designated areas. Many regions of the Plex are strictly off limits – in other words, private. So, Google should be able to understand the objections flooding in since the launch of Street View. “That’s my business,” is a statement all Americans should understand and protect, and if Google won’t recognize this, I would suggest that they are undermining their own future privacy in an increasingly invasive world.

19 Responses to “Google Street View And The California Constitution”

  1. on 27 Jul 2008 at 2:08 pm swainzy

    Miriam,
    Thank you for writing this. When I saw this article in the paper, I was alarmed. I think Google has gone too far. I hope your article will bring this subject to the fore and help find a solution to this invasion of privacy.
    Thanks Miriam,
    Donna

  2. on 27 Jul 2008 at 4:02 pm Andrey Filippov

    Miriam,

    When you write “If one child is kidnapped, if one house is robbed…” – do you mean that any tools that where at least once used to kill a person should be banned too?

    Can’t you think of any positive effects of the same service? For me the following one is really important.

    I believe our world is rather dangerous place now, there is a lot of hatred between different cultures, countries and religions. And this hatred can not be eliminated by “war on terror”, but by improving relations between people in the different parts of the world. And ability to virtually travel from just an Internet cafe somewhere in China, Middle East or my native Russia to the US (not just the official or white washed places) and be able to watch a snapshot of the everyday life of everyday people can make them see different America, not just the one many hate now around the world.

    Andrey
    Salt Lake City, Utah

  3. on 27 Jul 2008 at 8:30 pm admin

    Donna –
    I really appreciated you bringing the article to my attention. I had read Barry Schwartz’s post regarding humiliating photos of people showing up on Street View, and then the article you sent me, and all of the comments I’m seeing about the potential dangers of this, and I sense that people are feeling that a line has been crossed.

    Thank you for nudging me to write this one :)
    Miriam

  4. on 27 Jul 2008 at 8:48 pm admin

    Welcome to the SEOigloo Andrey,

    I appreciate your thoughtful comments here, and absolutely agree with you, that in the hands of the average person, this tool would never be used for ill purposes. Indeed, I like your concept of getting to see what daily life is like in other countries promoting the understanding that common folk have no cause to be enemies with the common folk of any other land. This is a pleasant idea, and I like it.

    As you have pointed out, however, we live in a world filled with hatred and violence. This isn’t merely on a global level, but also on a community, neighborhood and domestic one. It is exactly because there is hatred and violence that people are obliged to maintain a certain level of privacy and anonymity.

    You wouldn’t wave your credit card number in front of an identity thief any more than you’d give a burglar a plan of your house.

    Perhaps, like me, you are an idealist, Andrey, and would love to be living in a world where we can truly trust all of our neighbors. We’re not there yet, and I feel it endangers the most vulnerable members of society when we pretend that harm doesn’t happen to good people through an attitude of negligence and anything-goes.

    So, while I do agree with you that the Internet, in general, has the power to forge closer relationships and greater peace between people, I don’t believe those relationships need to extend to seeing into our neighbors’ living rooms. That is a privilege reserved for one’s closest friends, and should not belong to Google as a commodity to be given away without consent.

    Thank you for taking the time to comment here. I like what you have to say and hope to see you here again.
    Miriam

  5. on 28 Jul 2008 at 12:17 am Andrey Filippov

    Miriam,

    I do value my and others privacy but I still support Street View and believe that dangers of it are not that strong as you describe.

    You see, most people on the Internet (I try to follow discussions about S.V. closely) who recognize themselves on the Street View images did not notice the Google car taking those images (i.e. here – http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20080726184232AAC9McT ). And that was a strange looking vehicle with some kind of clearly visible camera installation on the roof and the Google logo (there are many photos online). So they would never notice an ordinary car driving around with the criminals inside – that would be much easier for the wrong doers to obtain information they might be looking for. If they drive around once a year (I believe Google does it even less frequently) – it will not raise anybody’s suspicion.

    I have seen on discussion forums in UK that people say – if somebody will roam around in person – others will notice him, but with Google Street View criminals can hide behind their computer screens.

    I think it is quite the opposite. There are digital traces that viewers of the Street View leave behind, and if somebody will be so stupid to use that service to plan a robbery – it will be much easier to reveal him by those traces (and Google will have to cooperate by the court order and provide that data). I don’t think that physical world robbers are computer-savvy enough to hide their online traces – if they could they would be engaged in more profitable high-tech crimes.

    Of course that raises the question of online privacy (i.e. Google knowing all your virtual travels) but that is another story…

  6. on 28 Jul 2008 at 6:50 am David Thurman

    Andrey

    Sorry but I think your defense of Street View is distorted by some type of rosy glasses technology. I for one don’t think for a minute that Google will divulge who was logged into Street View for an investigation, look at the current lawsuits that are happening with YouTube, also I think the drivers of these vehicles need to be held responsible for their blatant disregard of posted signs, shots of people in embarrassing situations etc., I for one again think these guys/girls driving knew darn good and well what they were photographing and where they were driving.

    Miriam is right, it will take an incident of horrible circumstances to get Google to start thinking like a business then a kid with a new toy.

    I see things changing in the next few to 10 years as it comes to all things Google, laws and restrictions to keep this silent big brother in check.

    Great article Miriam, I am glad to see you take such a hard stand on this. Keep it going!

  7. on 28 Jul 2008 at 11:04 am admin

    Andrey –
    I really do appreciate your defense of Street View and think you raise very good points.

    I agree that computer history could certainly be used as evidence IF a criminal is caught. If used, however, as a way to catch unknown criminals, I can’t imagine that Google has released this tool with the intention of setting up some sort of customer services branch that exists to help police find out which IPs were using Street View to case an address where a robbery happened. It isn’t that they couldn’t do this…I just don’t think they’ve created Street View thinking that they’ll be spending a lot of time now handing over data to investigators.

    Maybe if it turns out that way, they’ll have to rethink what they’ve brought on themselves.

    Goodness knows, I hope it doesn’t.

    Thank you again, Andrey, for your thoughtful comments.
    Miriam

  8. on 28 Jul 2008 at 11:11 am admin

    Greetings David!
    It’s a pleasure to have you here, and heartening to know that you, and others, are concerned about this tool.

    I agree with you – Google’s drivers were totally out of line when they trespassed. No licensed driver can claim they don’t know what a ‘no trespassing’ sign means and this brings up an especially good topic.

    If trespassing has historically been defined as physically walking on off-limits land, do we need a new definition of trespass?

    Do my readers feel that, so long as you’re outside the fence, you are free to film beyond the fence without it being trespass? Or, does new technology require that we begin creating new laws?

    I think it probably does.

    I enjoyed your comment, David. Thanks for taking the time to speak up and I hope to see you here again!
    Miriam

  9. on 28 Jul 2008 at 12:53 pm Andrey Filippov

    David, Miriam,

    There are probably many dozens if not hundreds of the Google cars around the world, and the drivers of those cars are spied upon with millions of eyes all over the world, all their violations (documented on S.V.) revealed.

    I believe many other private and government employees also make some violations (hope accidental)- usually unnoticed. Difference with Google – _we_ can see what they did, they can not hide it from us.

    Andrey

  10. on 29 Jul 2008 at 12:02 am Andrey Filippov

    You may find interesting an article in NewScientist
    “Swapping facial features protects online privacy” ( http://technology.newscientist.com/channel/tech/mg19926665.900-swapping-facial-features-protects-online-privacy.html ) describing new technology that can help to preserve benefits of the Street View service without hurting privacy of individuals. There is a link to a PDF file inside that article that has many nice illustrations – http://www.tinyurl.com/6ehog5

  11. on 29 Jul 2008 at 10:30 am Tony Daysog

    As hard as you tried, you did not present a compelling case as to how and why GoogleMaps violates the “State Constitution”, as you claim. It’s one thing to make a claim; it’s another thing to defend with concrete evidence. You did a pretty good job at pushing emotional hot buttons that, I suspect, get readers up in arms and shifts their attention away from the fact that you don’t present hard evidence in support of your thesis. What, prey tell, is your these: GoogleMaps is an intrusion on personal privacy that enables criminals.

    Setting aside benefits of GoogleMaps for now, let me keep my focus on your thesis, which you did not defend. Your thesis is this: GoogleMaps takes away your “cherished personal privacy.” And you link this thesis to a line in California’s Constitution, to give added weight to your thesis. But just “saying so” doesn’t make it so.

    While I am not a legal eagle, I think the courts have ruled that, as terrible as this sound (ask celebrities), when in the public domain people can take photographs of you without your permission or can take pictures of this or that building, again without permission. Tourists do that all the time. I know its errible and, like you, I see that as an intrusion.

    But, it’s one thing for me to say it is a “personal” intrusion but it is another thing to say that there is neither Constitutional or statutory authority that allows that to happen because, indeed, there is. it’s terible; it’s creepy; but it’s also constitutional. And that’s my problem with your discussion: you wrapped yourself up in the blanket of legal authority but, instead of arguing along these line, you slinked away into emotionalism that gets people to forget what your initial argument was in the first place.

    I suspect you bothered to reference the “constitution” because you figured it gives you an air of authority in making your case. But since you raised this bar, you needed to follow this line even more.

    Now, you also argue that GoogleMaps enables criminals. In particular, you write, “The major objections I’ve encountered so far to Street View include that it will enable burglars and other nefarious individuals to plan crimes against property and people in a way that was never imagined before. It only takes a little bit of thinking to see that a person with evil intentions could benefit hugely from a tool that not only shows them where all your home’s entrances and fuse boxes are, but may also show them who lives in your house. Elderly people, children, handicapped citizens? Why would Google put data like this into criminal hands?”

    How is this different from what a “burgular” or “nefarious individual” can do now with a “tool” like a car in which they can drive around neighborhoods and get a better lay of the land than GoogleMaps can ever offer? Doesn’t it stand to reason that a burgular is better off driving around in his car rather than tooling around GoogleMaps, in picking and choosing his crimes?

    Also, for the record, I wasn’t impressed by how you (again) loaded up on the emotional hot button in writing, “If one child is kidnapped, if one house is robbed, if one battered woman’s whereabouts are discovered by her abuser because of Google’s Street View, has our society gone so tech-crazy that we’ll still call this tool a benefit to man?” But, then, after using this emotional tactic, anticipating what opponents might say, you then write, “I need to believe that we’ve evolved beyond rhetoric like that” as if you yourself had not just done the very thing you say people who question you will say.

    You have every right to feel as you do, and, obviously to write about a situation as you see it. But, since this is a blog where people can respond to what you wrote, I think the more credible thing for you should have been something like this: “I don’t like GoogleMaps because it intrudes on my personal privacy but, unfortunately, the dang Constitution and state laws allows this to be.” I can’t argue with how you feel about GoogleMaps — that’s how you fell — but I think I can quibble with your mis-use of the Constitution as if it is on your side on this matter. It is not.

  12. on 29 Jul 2008 at 11:06 am admin

    Welcome to the SEOigloo Tony,

    I enjoyed reading your comment, and believe it deserves the respect of a thorough response. Allow me to begin my making the following clarification. You say:

    “And that’s my problem with your discussion: you wrapped yourself up in the blanket of legal authority”

    I am not citing my state’s constitution as a ‘legal authority’ and make no claims to being one. I’m citing it as a citizen of my state. The constitution was created to state and protect the rights of ordinary people, like me, and no one needs to be an authority to cherish its provisions. I’m sorry if, in reading my article, you felt I was billing myself as a lawyer or expert, and hope this clarification will help you to understand that I am simply asserting my right to point to a document that was created to protect the rights of average people like me.

    You say:
    “How is this different from what a “burgular” or “nefarious individual” can do now with a “tool” like a car in which they can drive around neighborhoods and get a better lay of the land than GoogleMaps can ever offer?”

    I’d assert that one way in which Street View is different is that it enables a person with criminal intentions to do all of their research without any possibility of detection. I live in a farming community, Tony. Here, we have a community group where neighbors agree to keep an eye on one another’s farms and to report any suspicious activity. If the farmers here noticed a stranger driving slowly around taking pictures of private property, I believe they’d report that. Street View puts detailed photography of private property in criminal hands with zero risk of detection because the criminal doesn’t even have to be there, physically. So, that’s one way in which it’s different. Do you agree with this?

    You Say:
    “I don’t like GoogleMaps”

    Here, I must beg leave to correct you, Tony. As this is your first comment here, perhaps you simply aren’t aware that a large part of my work life revolves around using Maps and helping my clients use Maps. I use Maps daily, and have frequently written in praise of it. It’s my daily interaction with all things Google Local that, at the very least, leads me to feel that I am qualified to write on the subject, though I don’t bill myself as a Local Expert any more than I do a Legal Expert.

    So, a good summary of the above post would be:

    “I’m a Local Search Practitioner and a California Resident Who Believes Street View Violates My Constitutional Rights To Safety, Privacy and Protection of Private Property.”

    I feel comfortable with the above, but do appreciate your criticisms. It’s always good for me to hear how people feel about my writing and I thank you for taking the time to comment on this.

    I expect this will be fought out in court, Tony, and do believe people will be looking both at their state constitutions as well as definitions of basic things like trespass for guidance.

    That’s what I’ve tried to do here, and I do thank you for giving what I’ve written a read.

    Miriam

  13. on 29 Jul 2008 at 11:10 am admin

    Andrey –
    Thanks for the links! Will check those out.
    Miriam

  14. on 29 Jul 2008 at 11:44 am Andrey Filippov

    Miriam, you wrote:
    “Here, we have a community group where neighbors agree to keep an eye on one another’s farms and to report any suspicious activity. If the farmers here noticed a stranger driving slowly around taking pictures of private property, I believe they’d report that.”

    Did any of them notice Google car with a visible camera on the roof actually stop Google drivers from entering private road? Or at least notice them actually taking the photos, ask about this “suspicious behavior”?

    Yes, people see those cars in different places, even mark those encounters on the Google maps (especially larger new cameras), but so far I have not seen any of them actually caught by a non-Google camera during trespassing and improper filming – all of those privacy issues were revealed by the Google imagery itself.

    And I’ll repeat myself – if such cars (to say nothing of just ordinary looking ones) were engaged in criminal reconnaissance – nobody will likely notice them even in your farmland were people naturally keep an eye on strangers.

    And “zero risk of detection because the criminal doesn’t even have to be there, physically” – you know that this “zero risk” is just an illusion. Hm-m, maybe Google should display (in real time) a dot (or better a directional pointer) showing that somebody is now virtually walking down your street and looking in particular direction with particular zoom level? That will not reveal their identity, but just remind that the watching are watched too.

  15. on 29 Jul 2008 at 1:07 pm LarryL

    In evaluating whether Street View violates the constitutional proscription on invasion of privacy one might consider how the privacy issue is treated in law.

    In a criminal case evidence in plain sight observed by law enforcement is usually admissible in a court proceeding. Are the Google cars capturing anything that is not in plain sight? It doesn’t seem so. To the extent that they capture a person inside a private home through an open livingroom window, a reasonable argument could be made that the person had no expectation of privacy since they left the window open, and that had they wished to protect and preserve privacy they would have closed the window.

    A counter argument might well be that a person living on a quiet residential street might well not expect a photograph of themselves, in their livingroom, to be posted on the web, and that they were within reason to expect that there would not be much other traffic passing by to see them as the Google camera did.

    The counter, counter then might well be that having a single picture posted is not the same as having it published on the front page of the local paper, and that the chance of anyone, anywhere, viewing their particular picture is probably no greater than the chance of a passerby looking into their window.

    And so it goes. The bottom line is that it seems some people are terribly radicalized about the idea of what bad thing might happen as a result, rather than whether ther might be any balance of risk and reward to be had.

    Back to the expectation of privacy question, where Google’s drivers clearly did cross the line was passing a “Private Property” or “Private Road” sign, or entering upon private property in any way from the public roads to which we all have a right of access, in order to obtain images. Again, the comparison to current law, when law enforcement gains evidence by entering private property, without a lawful warrant to do so, that evidence is obtained unlawfully and is disallowed.

  16. on 29 Jul 2008 at 1:38 pm admin

    Welcome to the SEOigloo, Larry.

    Your examples made me feel like I was sitting in the courtroom watching proceedings! Nice ones.

    I’d be interested to know how you, personally, would define trespass, and whether you feel that we may need new definitions of this?

    I think you are right that a smart lawyer could make it seem quite reasonable for people to be subjected to being photographed if they don’t shut their curtains…but I can’t agree that this interpretation of rights would be a good one for our country or any country.

    What do you think?

    I appreciate your illustrative comments here.
    Miriam

  17. on 29 Jul 2008 at 1:39 pm admin

    Hi Again Andrey –

    You asked:

    “Did any of them notice Google car with a visible camera on the roof actually stop Google drivers from entering private road? Or at least notice them actually taking the photos, ask about this “suspicious behavior”?”

    I’m not sure. We weren’t living here when the Google cars were out and about. I know people did spot them in other towns.

  18. on 29 Jul 2008 at 2:11 pm Andrey Filippov

    Miriam,

    Of course people did spot them in different parts of the world – here is a large photo gallery: http://www.flickr.com/groups/616736@N20/pool/ (My favorite is this one: http://www.flickr.com/photos/renalid/2495614821/in/pool-googlestreetviewcar ). In this (http://blogs.guardian.co.uk/digitalcontent/2008/07/the_google_street_view_car_spo.html ) article there is a Google Map with marked Google cars in UK.

    I meant – caught in action (or even better – stopped) of trespassing. All the incidents of drivers inappropriately getting to private roads that I’m aware of were revealed by the Google Street View, not by others.

    Andrey

  19. on 03 Nov 2010 at 8:41 am Jim

    Great that Google removes unwanted pictures from steet view!

    But why is nobody rioting against Google refusing to remove unwanted search results (which simply can´t be removed because e.g. they are on a Russian or Chinese website). Google could charge a fee for this service to block specific search results (since they are not responsible for the content of other websites) and earn some nice additional cash $$$$ Technically it would surely be possible but Google simply refuses.

    What are our data and privacy protectionists doing???????

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