UPDATE: Google has responded with the following statement:
We take privacy very seriously and appreciate the Senator’s concerns. We met with his office to demonstrate how the imagery used to develop our 3D models is similar to what’s already publicly available in 2D mapping products. We currently don’t blur aerial imagery because the resolution isn’t sharp enough for it to be a concern.
Read more about Google’s reply here.
Mobile maps have been in the news a lot lately. First came the rumors that Apple would be dumping Google Maps from the stock Maps app in iOS 6. Then Google did its best to preempt Apple’s announcement by announcing updates to Google Maps. Finally, Apple actually announced the new Maps app for iOS 6.
The centerpiece of all these announcements has been 3D modeling. Both Google and Apple announced that their new maps would include hyper-realistic 3D imagery. With Google, these 3D images will supplement Street View. In iOS, they will replace it entirely, since Apple doesn’t have its own fleet of cars driving around taking pictures of everywhere in the world (yet).
Like Street View, these 3D images have raised privacy concerns. You see, both Google and Apple get these images in just about the simplest way you could want: they have planes flying back and forth over major cities, taking pictures. It seems that some people have a problem with this. And by “some people,” I mean Senator Charles Schumer of New York. Concerned over Apple’s and Google’s use of “military-grade spy planes,” Schumer sent a letter to both companies calling on them to take steps to protect both personal privacy and government infrastructure. He requested that the companies notify communities when they are planning to be using their planes to take images in an area, that they blur out images of people, and that they give homeowners the chance to opt out of having their houses photographed. He also requested that they obscure images of “sensitive infrastructure details.”
“Barbequing [sic] or sunbathing in your backyard shouldn’t be a public event,” Schumer said. “By taking detailed pictures of individuals in intimate locations such as around a pool, or in their backyard, or even through their windows, these programs have the potential to put private images on public display.”
Here is the letter in its entirety:
Dear Apple and Google,
I write today over the recent revelations that your companies are using highly sensitive photography equipment to take pictures of cities and towns across the country for your respective mapping products. These disclosures are potentially troubling, and I request that the privacy and security of Americans remain your top priority as you deploy new mapping and imaging capability.
It has been reported that some of these sensitive cameras can take pictures of objects up to four inches wide. I fear that this clarity may allow your mapping programs to take detailed pictures of people in intimate locations such as around a pool or in someone’s backyard. People on Long Island or in Buffalo have a reasonable expectation of privacy when they decide to have a barbeque on their back deck and would prefer to retain the option of deciding whether they should be photographed on their property. They should not fear that your planes will be overhead taking detailed pictures of their private events.
Detailed photographs could also provide criminals and terrorists with detailed views of sensitive utilities. On current online maps, many power lines, power sub stations, and reservoir access points are visible only at low resolutions. However, if highly detailed images become available, criminals could create more complete schematic maps of the power and water grids in the United States. With the vast amount of infrastructure across the country, it would be impossible to secure every location.
Therefore, I request that your mapping programs include three separate privacy and security provisions:
1) Provide notification to communities as to when you plan to conduct mapping
2) Automatically blur photos of individuals who are captured, and give property owners the right to opt-out of having the company map their homes
3) Put protocols in place with law enforcement and local municipalities to ensure that sensitive infrastructure details are blurred from published maps
I hope that you would be willing to work with my office on this very important issue and ensure the security and privacy of all Americans.
nor Google has responded to requests for comment.