Turning the Electronic Eye on Google

By Clint Boulton  |  Posted 2008-08-01

Turning the Electronic Eye on Google

Google takes a lot of flak for what some politicians and pundits claim is a two-faced stance on privacy. Now a privacy watchdog is trying to show Google what it's like when its own satellite imagery software is turned against it.

The NLPC (National Legal and Policy Center) used Google's own Street View and Earth applications, which use camera and satellite images to provide layouts of locations on Earth, to pinpoint a senior Google executive's house in Palo Alto, Calif.

Within 30 minutes, the non-profit NLPC captured the outside gate and license plates of cars outside the Google executive's home. The NLPC also charted the distance from the street to the executive's front door and the most likely driving route the executive would take to Google's headquarters five miles away in Mountain View.

The NLPC linked to its investigative work here.

The NLPC's experiment was a reaction to legal statements made by Google in Pennsylvania court documents released this week and offered here by The Smoking Gun that privacy doesn't exist.

Google's statement came in response to an invasion-of-privacy lawsuit from Aaron and Christine Boring in Pennsylvania. The Borings' lawsuit contends that a Google vehicle equipped with a 360-degree panoramic camera on its roof drove down the married couple's private road to take images of their home.

Google conceded that the photos were taken while entering the Borings' driveway, arguing: "Today's satellite-image technology means that even in today's desert, complete privacy does not exist."

In the filing, Google argues that the views of the Borings' house from where Google snapped photos were not private and that satellite images already show similar views of the property.

A Google spokesperson clarified the "desert" comment for me today: "This citation was used to help frame the response and illustrate why we believe this suit is without merit. It should not be interpreted as a blanket statement on our views towards privacy. To be clear, Google respects an individual's right to privacy."

But the NLPC seized on the comment in the filing, claiming it contradicts Google's general public stance that it takes privacy very seriously, said NLPC Chairman Ken Boehm.

"Perhaps in Google's world privacy does not exist, but in the real world individual privacy is fundamentally important and is being chipped away bit by bit every day by companies like Google," Boehm said in a statement. "Google's hypocrisy is breathtaking."

Turning the Electronic Eye on Google

=A Murky Issue}

Google straddles the fine line between ensuring privacy and crossing it.

While the company is sometimes called to Capitol Hill to explain how it leverages user data from its search, Gmail and other applications to boost its online advertising tools, Google Street View and Google Earth are striking citizens in the United States and abroad as the most invasive.

For Street View, the company sends out vans to take pictures of residential areas so that users can find addresses online.

This application is part of Google Earth, a virtual globe program that maps the earth by the superimposition of images obtained from satellites imagery and aerial photography.

Politicians are still grappling with whether to officially treat these apps as invasions of privacy or tools for gathering useful information.

Privacy is a murky issue. Thanks to satellite imagery technology and the ability to post the images it captures on the Web for the world to see, Google is stuck trying to make sure it doesn't break privacy rules.

Google's own privacy advocates, including Peter Fleischer, maintain that the company is very serious about privacy. Yet other executives occasionally undermine their work.

For example, as the NLPC noted, Google Evangelist Vint Cerf, widely considered the founding father of the Internet, said in May that "nothing you do ever goes away, and nothing you do ever escapes notice. ... There isn't any privacy, get over it."

A single quote offered without context hardly obliterates Google's privacy position, as the NLPC suggests.

Cerf was merely repeating something that former Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy and other high-tech executives with years of experience on the Internet believe.

The Internet is an incredibly powerful tool with few restrictions. As the amount of information on it continues to grow, so will the number of lawsuits that cry foul over the way the information is used.

This could lead to amendments of privacy laws and other constitutional changes.  

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