Google Earth and Google Street View, two popular applications offered by Google that enable users to view detailed satellite images of buildings or street-level panoramas of major roads and neighborhoods, have recently engendered controversy. In the United States, legislators in California and Texas have introduced bills directed at Google Earth and other similar applications. The proposed California bill prohibits operators of commercial Internet websites that make a “virtual globe browser available to members of the public” from providing “aerial or satellite photographs or imagery” of schools, religious facilities or government buildings, unless those images have been blurred. Violators could be fined at least $250,000 and natural persons who knowingly violate the provisions could face imprisonment between one to three years. The proposed Texas bill prohibits any person from publishing on the Internet “an image capable of zooming into greater detail than that of an aerial photograph taken without a magnifying lens 300 feet or higher of private property not visible from the public right-of-way,” and classifies the offense as a Class B misdemeanor, which is punishable by a fine up to $2,000 or 180 days in prison.
Concerns over potential terrorist attacks may have provided the impetus for the recent proposed legislation. The author of the California bill noted recent attempts by Indian officials to censor Google Earth in response to revelations that the terrorists who attacked Mumbai in 2008 utilized Google Earth to familiarize themselves with their targets. CNN reports that one Indian official has demanded “sensitive locations like defense installations, government headquarters, legislature buildings, important places of worship, ports, docks and other similar sites” be excluded from the Google Earth application.
The recent expansion of Google Street View into the United Kingdom prompted Privacy International, a privacy rights advocacy group, to file a formal complaint with that country’s Information Commissioner’s Office (“ICO”). The BBC reports that Privacy International has requested that the ICO temporarily shut down Google Street View, alleging that the application has “caused clear embarrassment and damage” to many Britons. For example, the BBC reports that a woman who has repeatedly moved her residence to escape a violent former partner was allegedly displayed on Google Street View in front of her new home. In the United States, a Pennsylvania couple have appealed the recent dismissal of their claim that Google Street View invaded their privacy by posting images of their house online.
Google Earth and Google Street View are powerful applications with many practical uses in such diverse areas as navigation, tourism, house hunting or disaster relief. If these practical uses are to continue, lawmakers and regulators must strike a delicate balance between facilitating the development of these applications and addressing the legitimate privacy and national security concerns raised by their use.