Google's Street View: Benefits outweigh some privacy concerns

Summary:The EU, concerned about privacy, wants Google to limit the amount of time it stores images for Google Street View but Google argues that 12 months

Street View, the feature within Google Maps that allows users to see the actual view of the street on their screens, is under fire from officials in Europe.

Regulators with the European Union say that Google may be breaking EU privacy laws by storing the street view images for a year and want the company to cut that period down to six months, according to a Bloomberg report. Google, however, disagrees with the EU and is working with data-protection in the EU to explain why its year-long retention policy is justified. In a statement e-mailed to Bloomberg, a Google lawyer wrote:

The need to retain the unblurred images is legitimate and justified - to ensure the quality and accuracy of our maps, to improve our ability to rectify mistakes in blurring, as well as to use the data we have collected to build better maps products for our users. We have publicly committed to a retention period of 12 months from the date on which images are published on Street View, and this is the period which we will continue to meet globally.

When Street View surfaced in the U.S. in 2007, there was some backlash as users spotted some funny - and embarrassing - things being picked up by the Google Street View camera.

There was the guy walking into an adult book store, the girls sunbathing on the park lawn, the woman bending over to get something out of the backseat of her car (a position that showed more of her than she cared to show) and, of course, the guy who appeared to be breaking into a house.

Google has been responsive to the requests to have images blurred and many of the privacy concerns have faded over time. With Street View kicking into high gear in Europe, the complaints over privacy sound familiar.

Personally, I think the benefits of Street View outweigh the concerns over privacy, largely because Google isn't capturing images of anything that isn't available for the public to see. After all, the streets are in a public domain. If I walked around a town randomly taking pictures and happened to capture some guy walking out of a hotel with a woman that isn't his wife, then that's fair game. Maybe that guy should have left five minutes later or they should have used separate exits.

Granted, Google has no business capturing backyard skinny-dipping pool parties nor should it be heading up private driveways just for the sake of snapping a picture of someone's home. The point is, if it happened on the public street for anyone to see, why shouldn't Google be able to capture - and store - an image of it?

As for the benefit, I can offer one recent use case of my own. We've been searching for a new home in recent months and have sifted through listing after listing online. Thanks to Street View, we've been able to eliminate some of the houses we want to see because we've been able to "cruise around the neighborhood" and see beyond the pictures that the real estate agents post in their listings. No real estate agent is going to show you an image of a homeless shelter next door or gang members drinking 40s in the park across the street - but Google Street View will. And that saves me the trip out to that house for a drive-by look.

For Google Street View to remain effective, it needs to update those images regularly - after all, things change over time as new homes are constructed, businesses open and close or an entire street block becomes - and starts to look like - a foreclosure zone. These are the things people want to see.

It might help if Google issued advisories with local media of the towns where they'll be capturing street images. Even a blurb in the local newspaper or a reminder on local TV news that Google's Street View car will be cruising around town this week is enough to force the thieves to lay low or the beer-drinking gang members to move the party to someone's backyard - at least for that week.

update: Google tells me that there is a site where the company lists the cities that are being photographed for Street View.

Topics: Legal, Google

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