May 2008 will mark the one year anniversary of the launch of Google’s “Street View,” one of the latest features in the Google Maps lineup. Google Maps has evolved from a basic online map service into a feature-rich product with driving directions, satellite imagery, terrain overlays and real-time traffic flows. Contributing to its success is an open application programming interface (API), which allows developers to create their own custom map “mash-ups.” For example, USA Today has used the API to map all of the home foreclosures in Denver since 2006, while websites such as WikiCrimes provide mash-ups of user-submitted crime reports, and Virginia Tech’s eCorridors application constructs maps of broadband coverage and speeds from user-submitted data.
The latest feature – Street View – combines thousands of street-level photographs taken by Google to create a realistic, 360-degree panoramic view of various cities. Online users can navigate through the streets to take a virtual walk through the city. Using Street View, home buyers can check out a neighborhood, virtual tourists can explore where to visit, and residents can locate unfamiliar places. Google is not the first company to launch this type of feature – Amazon.com showcased a similar concept in their A9.com BlockView maps in 2005.
While most users enjoy these features, a small but vocal group of opponents has emerged, claiming that Google Street View represents a threat to their privacy. When Google first rolled out Street View, the New York Times published an article about the new program featuring a woman in Oakland, California who criticized it because it showed a photo of her cat sitting in her living room window. Kevin Bankston at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) condemned Street View from the start arguing, "There is a certain ‘ick’ factor here." In the United Kingdom, Simon Davies, director of Privacy International argues, “This is just the latest in a litany of privacy invasions by Google, which they justify by claiming openness as an excuse.”
The latest manifestation of this opposition is a lawsuit filed by a couple who live outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. They claim that the photograph of their home in Street View violates their privacy and have sued Google for $25,000 in damages.
Based on legal precedent, it seems unlikely that the plaintiffs will be successful unless they can prove that Google trespassed on private property to take the photograph in question. Google acquires the images by driving around cities on public streets in vehicles mounted with digital cameras and GPS devices. The cameras photograph no more than what the average person would see