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Minnesota Town Vanishes From Google Street Images

Google erases pictures of the streets and residents in North Oaks, after the mayor claimed the search engine violated the city's trespassing ordinance.

Google's approach to privacy with regard to map imagery parallels its approach to copyrighted information: assume that permission has been granted and respond when someone objects. (In the pre-Internet era, before the Digital Millennium Copyright Act offered Safe Harbor defenses for copyright infringement, the prudent approach was to seek permission before making use of copyrighted content.)

The risk of applying this approach to privacy is that privacy depends in part on social expectation. Thus, as people come to expect less privacy, their right to privacy ebbs to meet their lowered expectations.

"We have body of case law that defines whether and under what circumstances a private street provides for a right of expectation of privacy," said Kristen Mathews, a partner at Proskauer Rose in New York. "The question I have is will the existence over time of Google Maps alter that case law? Because as more time goes by that we have Google Maps in place, the less people will have an expectation of privacy. Will our kids feel that they have an expectation of privacy when they are on a private street? Maybe not, because of the existence of Google Maps."

Mathews said she has sensed that everyone is more sensitive to geo-privacy issues than they were two years ago. And she suggests that general awareness of privacy concerns is rising. "I have had clients come to me regarding surveillance [video equipment] that the government has requested to be placed on their property," she said. "And they have expressed concern about whether they have to comply with that or not. And I don't know whether they would have thought of having this concern a couple of years ago."

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