Google Maps, Street View, and privacy: Try harder, Google

Summary:Google has seemingly been decent at maintaining the privacy of passers-by and license plates appearing in Google Maps Street View images, but how good is their privacy algorithm really? Questionable, according to my recent research.

Google is no stranger when it comes to meddling in things that involve privacy, and though they do a decent job on most cases, a recent thread on Reddit led me down the rabbit hole of finding out just how much harder Google needs to try with their privacy/blurring algorithm in the Street View feature of Google Maps. Looking around the location linked in that Reddit thread, I found one truly outstanding example that serves to make my point:

google-maps-street-view-privacy-faces
(Credit: Google Maps)

If you look close enough at the image above, you can see which faces have been blurred out and which haven't. So long as the link to that image that I provided above is live, you can go zoom in and clearly make out nearly every unblurred face on that board.

Not one for being a sensationalist, I personally don't think this particular example is a big deal; however, the bigger picture is worth addressing, as is the technology Google is currently relying on in an attempt to keep things like this from happening. The example above demonstrates a very clear discrepancy in their technology as it missed privatizing well over 50 percent of the faces therein for reasons that aren't immediately apparent.

Here, in Google's own words, is how they describe their efforts to privatize passers-by, license plates, and that which people manually request to have removed or privatized:

As noted in the video and on their Google Maps privacy page, Google makes it simple to report a problem with privacy--or do they? When clicking "Report a problem" in the lower-left-hand section of the Google Maps Web page, I clicked my way through to what seemed to be the most appropriate section of the reporting feature for privacy-related requests:

google-maps-street-view-privacy-roundabout
(Credit: Google Maps)

Everything seems to be in order up to this point, right? Well, unfortunately, when clicking the "continue" button, you're redirected to the Google Maps privacy page -- the very same one I linked to a second ago -- which, consequently, provides absolutely no avenue to report content. The truth is, I initially didn't even see the "report a problem" link provided in the image itself, due to how close it is on the Google Maps page to the obvious "report a problem" link. Here's the actual closeness in proximity between the two choices, and which one -- as I so eloquently demonstrate in MS Paint -- is the correct one to choose, should you find yourself needing to make use of it:

google-maps-report-a-problem
(Credit: Google Maps; ZDNet)

No matter what our individual opinions are of faces being shown in Google Maps, the point is that Google has made it clear where they stand on the issue: they want to adhere to a standard of privacy. Bearing that in mind, one must question how seriously Google takes privacy where faces are concerned. To further drive the point home, here's another image from the very same location as the first image in this post that showcases a rather laughable attempt at anonymizing someone (hint: look in the mirror):

google-maps-street-view-privacy-bad-results
(Credit: Google Maps)

Now the PR answer to all of this would most likely be something to the effect of, "Google takes privacy very seriously"; and while I think they do care about it and would obviously like to be 100 percent successful with their privacy measures, it seems that Google could try a lot harder here.

Perhaps erring on the side of privacy might be understandable in cases like this, or is it simply sufficient that some privacy is better than no privacy at all? Does one just hope they don't somehow end up being seen in some manner that they would prefer not to be? Should it really just not matter? There's a fine line here, especially when considering the myriad of possible scenarios ranging on the spectrum of privacy from both a technical/legal standpoint and a subjective/personal standpoint.

Google clearly has much to work out while undergoing its efforts to shape the way we view and navigate the world, but while I personally afford them much more leeway on the topic of privacy than many might, I feel the quality bar is nearing "excruciatingly low" in the examples I've provided herein.

What do you think? Do you think Google should try harder to make sure scenarios like the aforementioned don't occur, or do you think it's not all that big a deal? Let us know your thoughts in the comment section below.

Topics: Google, Privacy

About

Stephen is a freelance writer and blogger based in Charlotte, NC. His contributions to ZDNet cover topics related to security, gaming, Microsoft, Apple, and other topics of interest with a tech/SMB skew.

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