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.

Thomas Claburn, Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

June 2, 2008

4 Min Read

The city of North Oaks, Minn., can no longer been seen using Google Maps Street View.

Minutes of the City Council's Jan. 10 meeting indicate that Google sent a driver in a camera-equipped vehicle to record images of the city's streets last summer, in violation of the city's trespassing ordinance. Mayor Tom Watson then contacted Google representatives and asked that they remove Street View of North Oaks images from Google Maps.

At present, there's no available Street View coverage of North Oaks, unlike adjacent neighborhoods in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area.

"All data files will be destroyed and not used by any Google companies or subsidiaries," the meeting minutes states. Google was not immediately able to confirm that removed North Oaks images have actually been deleted.

"Street View only features imagery taken on public property," said a Google spokesperson via e-mail. "While the Street View feature enables people to easily find, discover, and plan activities relevant to a location, we respect the fact that people may not want certain images featured on the service. We provide easily accessible tools for flagging inappropriate or sensitive imagery for review and removal."

The Report Inappropriate Images link, accessible from the Street View Help link in the Street View image window, is the most common way people can request image removal.

Such efforts to alter Google's maps are not without precedent. Google does not share the number of take-down requests it receives, but a company spokesperson said, "Overall, we consistently receive very few take-down requests relative to the amount of imagery that is available -- and we have even received a request to restore imagery that had previously been taken down."

Requests for image removal that have been publicly reported have tended to come from U.S. or foreign governments. The Pentagon, for instance, issued a memorandum on Feb. 28 ordering military sites not to allow Google's image capturing efforts. In March, China's People's Daily reported that Google was one of several prominent Internet companies being investigated for illegal mapmaking.

Though Google declined to confirm or deny this report, it's likely that Google will have no choice but to alter its Chinese maps if required to do so by Chinese law. China last year passed a law that restricted mapping and surveying by foreigners in order to protect national security.

Google last week filed a motion to dismiss an invasion-of-privacy and trespassing lawsuit brought by a couple in Pennsylvania over Google Maps Street View images of the couple's house. While Google has removed the images in question, it rejects the couple's demand for damages, claiming that the couple's expectation of privacy is too high.

"Today's satellite-image technology means that even in today's desert, complete privacy does not exist," Google's court filing says. "In any event, Plaintiffs live far from the desert and are far from hermits. Although they live on a privately maintained road, the road is shared by several neighbors and 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. There is no fence surrounding their property, nor is it located where the yard cannot be seen by satellite or low-flying aircraft. ... The view of which the Plaintiffs complain simply is not private." 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."

About the Author(s)

Thomas Claburn

Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful master's degree in film production. He wrote the original treatment for 3DO's Killing Time, a short story that appeared in On Spec, and the screenplay for an independent film called The Hanged Man, which he would later direct. He's the author of a science fiction novel, Reflecting Fires, and a sadly neglected blog, Lot 49. His iPhone game, Blocfall, is available through the iTunes App Store. His wife is a talented jazz singer; he does not sing, which is for the best.

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