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

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.

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TOPICS: Google, Privacy
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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

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3 comments
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  • This isn't streetview

    Please do better investigation on your stories. This is not Streetview. It's a program called Google Business Photos.
    markgoho
  • You point? Summary vs Title...which one?

    It seems your title implies the content of your article is to urge Google to try harder in the area of privacy.
    Your summary states, "how good is their privacy algorithm really?"
    Trying to figure out what your main point is, is a bit blurred itself. Do you want Google to work harder at privacy issues or do you want the algorithms modified? Those are separate issues. One being a matter of people, the other a matter of programming.

    Fortunately you do state "...according to my recent research." which leaves the room for your assumptions and erroneous information.

    Google Business Photos are shot by independent contractors (though the tour given as an example does not give credit to any particular photographer, which is the photographer's responsibility to enter). It is the responsibility of the independent photographer to check all images for proper blurring of "live" people in shots. An algorithm can only do so much as it's not a person which is why it is up to the photographer to manually make sure things are according to Google's guidelines.

    Now that it's established that these independent photographers are the ones responsible for assuring the blurring of "live" people's faces and license plate blurring of registered vehicles (personally identifiable information of subjects present in the shots), the matter of what constitutes "personally identifiable information" can be addressed.

    If a business, facility or public location has images displayed, the business signs an agreement stating they have and grant the rights for images captured in Business Photos to be displayed, understanding that faces of individuals present at the time of the shoot are to be blurred. The independent photographer is also responsible for either posting signs or making announcements when beginning any shoot (including moving to a different position whether in the same room or not) that anyone that does not wish to be in the images may step out of the shot if they do not wish to be pictured in said location. This removes the need for your statement/question, "...being seen in some manner that they would prefer not to be." If a person chooses not to be depicted in a location, they are certainly free to move.

    SO, if a wall of photos is present in a business which has traffic from the public, and the business signs an agreement stating they have and are granting the rights to display such images, then what should have actually happened is that the independent photographer should have UNBLURRED the images in the photos on the wall. (*photos with images of children that MAY be perceived to be personal family members of the business owner are still advised to blur if in doubt.)

    HOWEVER, it is noted that the image of the individual's face that can be seen in the reflection of the mirror should have been blurred. But that is the responsibility of the independent photographer and not the "fault" of Google or its extremely complex programming for facial and license plate recognition.

    In response to "Report a problem". there is good reason one would report a problem FROM the actual page in which they located and perceived a problem.
    Let's take for example, your link to the Russian & Turkish Bathhouse in Miami FL.
    "I found one truly outstanding example" in the first paragraph of this article is where you provide a link to the business in Miami FL (I'm sure they'll thank you for some increase in traffic/tour views - free publicity!)
    In your link, though I'm not sure exactly who provided the link...perhaps it was not you but rather someone sent you a link and said "Here, write about this!" Nonetheless, one would imagine you are responsible for the content of your article (not zdnet.com). So whether you grabbed the link from somewhere else, you were sent the link OR you actually found the link, copied and pasted it, it still has very telling information about you and the location of you (or your source's location). I am a bit surprised that as a writer on a site for "Technology News, Analysis, Comments and Product Reviews for IT Professionals", that you did not at least get a clean link. I am NOT located in the UK, yet your link provided seems to think I am, which means either A) You are. or B) Your source is/was.
    Nonetheless, when one clicks to "Report a problem", a lot of information is contained within the "report" so that it can be tracked and resolved best. Logically, if you have a problem with a cookie company in a mall, you are most likely going to get the best and more immediate results by addressing the issue with the cookie company rather than going to the mall office and reporting an issue.

    As for Google's privacy standards, their privacy measures are exemplary.
    In summary, if a person doesn't want to be seen in a particular location, one would image they would not agree or allow a photo of them to be displayed in such a place.
    Technic-Nerd
  • Tight fit

    It's crazy the places I can fit now! Watch out bath houses of the world!
    TheStreetviewcar