Google Street View: All the World’s a Stage

Yesterday I joined the NPR “Talk of the Nation” program to discuss Google’s privacy policies. The callers were most fascinated by Google’s new “Street View” feature, which lets users “view street level shots of each block.” One said this was obviously not a privacy violation, since it only took photographs of things in public view. But others felt they should be able to go out in public and not worry about some random picture of them (say, leaving a chiropractor’s office) permanently in a Google database.

I had some sympathy for both sides, but ultimately more for the latter. I think it’s one thing when, say, a single photographer on Flickr takes a photograph of someone incidentally with no personally identifiable information. “Permissions culture” has gone to such extremes that it seems unfair to burden shutterbugs with obligations to get clearances from anyone they shoot–and even in this case, there are some limits internationally (“In Québec, a teenage girl successfully sued a photographer for $8,000 after he took her picture without her knowledge, even though she was sitting on the front steps of a public building.”).

But the case of a Google or Yahoo!, with immense, cross-checkable databases, is another matter altogether. We know that government has sought extensive access to these databases. Face recognition technology may reach a point where any image can be traced back to a name or number. I think it safe to assume that just about any surveillance technology applied by the private sector can eventually be coopted by the government if a security threat becomes pressing.

So should we cheer on claims like “intrusion upon seclusion” against Google Street View? I’m not willing to say that, because we have yet to see exactly how it’s being used. (Sadly, we may never get that information from Google, because the company may call it a trade secret.) But I do hope for two things:

1) A realization that technology like this is not simply a product of Google, but can be put to many ends by a security apparatus willing to force corporations to ignore existing privacy laws. We may well want to go in the direction of London’s CCTV, but we should have some architecture for regulating that transition. Someone has to be able to watch the watchers.

2) Some reflection on the types of public activity that are likely to decline when “all the world’s a stage.” Sure, we can catch people robbing banks more easily (or exiting strip clubs); but what happens to protest? Will people think twice about going to an anti-war demonstration if they know the whole thing will be captured, forever, by entities unaccountable to them? On a less political level, will everyday life become more and more a “new American performing reality?” Perhaps Goffman’s idea of the “stage” is about to be extended to every public street in America.

Frank Pasquale

Frank is Professor of Law at the University of Maryland. His research agenda focuses on challenges posed to information law by rapidly changing technology, particularly in the health care, internet, and finance industries.

Frank accepts comments via email, at pasqresearch@gmail.com. All comments emailed to pasqresearch@gmail.com may be posted here (in whole or in part), with or without attribution, either as "Dissents of the Day" or as parts of follow-up post(s). Please indicate in your comment whether or not you would like attribution, or would prefer your comment (if it is selected for posting) to be anonymous.

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7 Responses

  1. Big Brother says:

    This is definitely 1984’ish. Check out this huge list of Google Street View privacy invasions:

    http://streetviewgallery.corank.com

  2. Very thoughtful post, Frank.

    Beyond government uses and possible misuses of data in “immense, cross-checkable databases” like Google and Yahoo!, don’t forget their accessibility to everyone else too. It is only a matter of time before technology allows at least some significant degree of image-based search from your desktop, so that it will not even be necessary for someone to tag a photo in order for it to be linked to you. (Never mind the additional potential problem of errors in such automated matching and the resulting false positives!)

    If neighbors, blind dates, and future employers can one day call up these images as easily as they now call up textual content about you, we will poke another big hole in the boundary between public and private spheres. As with future government uses, all these pictures that are getting stored now will, presumably, be available for searching by such technology later.

  3. Jim Graves says:

    Wouldn’t a claim for publication of private facts or misappropriation of image have a better chance in this case than intrusion? It seems unlikely that people could claim a reasonable expectation of seclusion when they’re in public.

    For example, consider the Streetview pictures of men on their way into strip clubs. Is the problem that they were intruded upon, or is the real problem that the publication of the fact that they went into the strip club?

  4. Frank says:

    William: yes, that “boundary between public and private spheres” is the big issue here. Do we want to preserve that boundary–or find some creative ways of managing or regulating the data compilers now breaching it?

    Jim: Perhaps those are more promising causes of action. As P& K say, “On the public street, or in any other public place, [a person] has no legal right to be alone.” W. Page Keeton et al., Prosser and Keeton on the Law of Torts § 117, at 855 (5th ed. 1984).

    But I have to admit that I find it unsettling that there is a new “burden” associated with, say, opening one’s curtains. People should be able to let in air and light without having to worry that their possessions (and, say, campaign signs on windows) will be in some database for eternity.

    Perhaps the cataloging of streetviews can be modeled as a “loss of privacy” externality.

  5. Keith says:

    The problem with point number two is the fact that one’s chances of ending up in the on-line imagery (or even the imagery that doesn’t pass muster) are remarkably low.

    Using the example of an anti-war demonstration, my guess is that your chances of ending up “on file” as a result of publicized domestic surveillance programs are far greater.

  6. Let’s put aside the cliched antiwar demonstration example; instead let’s imagine it’s a Pro-life march in Washington to mark the anniversary of Roe v. Wade – the left doesn’t want that archived for later use in case one of the marchers comes up for a federal judicial appointment? You would all denounce such a use and find it worrisome?

  7. Maryland Conservatarian:

    Yes.

    (Well, maybe “denounce” is a bit stronger than what we are all saying here about these issues, but definitely “find it worrisome.”)

    Freedom of association is ideologically neutral.