Google Street View – Invasion of Privacy?

This is a topic that could be hotly debated for years to come, but let’s start with the following article that appeared in the CBC newsroom last week.

Google was fined by a French body for improperly collecting and storing data, but I’m wondering if the idea of posting a photo of every house in the world isn’t the larger concern.

As a Realtor, I love it!  But as a human (which most Realtors are…), I’m not so sure that I ever liked the idea in the first place…

The Associated Press
March 21st, 2011

Google received its first ever fine for improperly gathering and storing data for its Street View application on Monday when it was penalized by France’s privacy watchdog.

The $139,100 penalty — the largest ever by French body CNIL — sanctions Google for collecting personal data from Wi-Fi networks — including emails, web browsing histories and online banking details — from 2007 to 2010 through its roaming camera-mounted cars and bicycles.

The incidents, which some critics have derisively labeled as “Wi-Spy,” were caused by “an engineer’s careless error as well as a lack of controls to ensure that necessary procedures to protect privacy were followed,” Canada’s Privacy Commissioner, Jennifer Stoddart, concluded in a report last October.

Several other countries have skewered Google for scooping up 600 gigabytes of data — equivalent to about six floors of an academic library — from Wi-Fi systems for more than two years before detecting a problem in response to an inquiry from regulators in Germany.

Google initially said it had only captured fragments of people’s online activities, but Canada’s investigation determined that entire emails, passwords and website addresses had been obtained and stored.

The fine is the first against Google over the data-gathering, which more than 30 countries have complained about. At least two other European countries are considering fines, while some others have ruled against penalizing Google.

Google Inc. has apologized and says it will delete the data.

“As we have said before, we are profoundly sorry for having mistakenly collected payload data from unencrypted Wi-Fi networks,” Google’s Global Privacy Counsel Peter Fleischer said in an emailed statement. “As soon as we realized what had happened, we stopped collecting all Wi-Fi data from our Street View cars and immediately informed the authorities.”

Google has two months to appeal the fine. It hasn’t yet decided whether it will, a company spokesman said.

The head of CNIL criticized Google for a lack of transparency and co-operation with its investigation, which it launched in 2009.

“They were not always willing to co-operate with us, they didn’t give us all the information we asked for, like the source code of all devices in the Google cars,” said Yann Padova, CNIL’s executive director. “They were not always very transparent.”


So let me get this straight: we are supposed to believe that a $139,100 fine is going to faze Google, somehow, in some way?

Or maybe $139,100 is what Google spends on coffee filters in a single year…

It’s like fining an NHL hockey player $2,500 for a dirty hit instead of suspending him for ten games – since he happens to make $7 Million per year.

Would it really make an impact?

It’s the equivalent of a $23.00 fine for somebody who makes $65,000 per year.

But the fine isn’t the issue.

The issue I have, and have always had, is that I think “Google Street View” is an incredible invasion of privacy.

A few years ago, a friend told me about Google’s seemingly impossible initiative: to have a photograph of every house on the planet, all viewable on their “Google Maps” platform.

At the time, I was amazed at the existing tools as they stood back then!  I couldn’t believe I could type in “Amsterdam” and zoom the mapping tool right down to a single street in the middle of town!  It was such an exact tool that I never thought they could better it.  But alas, Google Maps would eventually pale in comparison to Google Street View.

I’m not sure how you could monitor/judge/enforce sanctions against Google’s initiative, since they’re doing this all over the world.  But as per the finding in a French court, we now see that individual countries can deal with Google as they see fit.

Personally, I think this photo tells the whole story:

This home-owner has planted eight-foot hedges to create an element of privacy.

Google, however, doesn’t care.  They’ve mounted a camera on a five-foot tripod on the roof of their four-foot car.

Would it be illegal to climb over that hedge and run around in the home-owner’s yard?  Probably.

So how is it not illegal to mount a nine-foot camera, take a photo of the home, and put it on the Internet for everybody in the world to see?

Maybe it’s not illegal, but I certainly think it’s unethical.

Only a company of Google’s size and stature could ever take on an initiative like this one.

The sheer idea alone makes you scratch your head, but they’ve actually gone and done it.

In my profession, Google Street View is a Godsend!

Think back to the early 1980’s when a Realtor would present his or her clients with a polaroid of the exterior of the house.  He had no interior photos, and merely a description of the house on some carbon-paper.

The Internet changed the industry and made it far more efficient, but Google Street View means we barely have to leave our chairs!

What is the street like?

Are there mature trees?

Are the streets wide?

Do the properties have boulevards?

Are there any parks?

What do the other houses look like?

Are any run down?

Do any of the neighbours have weird, creepy statues mounted on the front lawn?

All these questions, and more, can be answered by browsing Google Street View.

The other day I looked up a house in the east end which looked great on paper and looked even better from the photos.  But when I plugged the address into Google Street View and panned around 360-degrees, I realized that a gas station was visible from the front porch of the house.  Truly – it was as if I were standing on the front porch of the house and looking across the street!

There was a house for sale on the corner of Donlea and Sutherland a while back and I told my clients, “You could literally watch your children walk down your driveway, across the street, and into the school yard at Northlea!”  I told them to view the home on Google Street View, and sure enough, you click your mouse a few times as if you were walking the street yourself, and see how close the house was to the school.

I’m not saying that as a society, we need yet another reason to sit on our asses and never get up and do anything.  I’m not suggesting that the Bruce Willis movie Surrogates is in our future.

But I am saying that Google Street View, despite it’s potential invasion of privacy, is an incredible visual tool for people looking to buy real estate.

“It looks great on Google Street View” is the new catch phrase among my buyers.

I’ve said it before – buyers are more savvy now than they’ve ever been, and it’s tools like this that keep them constantly improving their knowledge base.

When properties have a potential “red flag” such as being close to the train tracks, backing onto a commercial building, etc., buyers can check them out on Google Street View and decide if they’re even worth visiting in person.

I’ve always been quite turned off by the tricks that some Realtors play, such as taking an exterior photo of a home and stretching it to make it look larger.  Consider a 28-foot lot that is stretched horizontally to make it look like a 35-foot lot.  Well thanks to Google Street View, we can check out what the house really looks like and avoid the frustration of showing up and having the home look nothing like the photo.

Having written Monday’s blog post about that bizarre house in the west end with Frosty the Snowman hanging from his neck, I’m now starting to realize that had I actually given out the address, it wouldn’t have been half as unethical as what Google has done!  They’ve taken a photo of every house in the world!

Well, I’m hardly the moral authority….on anything.

All I know is that Google Street View has made my job easier, and it’s a tool my buyers will use for years and years to come…

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  1. […] available for anyone in the world, to view online. “Google Street View- Invasion of Privacy?” http://www.torontorealtyblog.com/2011/03/google-street-view-invasion-of-privacy/ is an article explaining that not only has Google take photographs of people homes, but also […]

  2. El Mike-o says:

    I don’t see how a picture of your house constitutes an invasion of privacy. It’s just a structure. Nobody knows who it belongs to. If you discovered that you lost your house key along the street somewhere, would you consider it a compromise of your security?

  3. Mike says:

    The joke is that Google says it accidentally collected data from unsecured wireless networks. If all they had was a car with cameras taking pictures while mapping and plotting gps co ordinates why was there a sniffer program in the car capturing data from wireless networks.

    Could it be google wanted to get information on the people that live in certain neighbourhoods and their web browsing patterns?

  4. Chuck says:

    I was trying to find the one with the drunk guy passed out, and ended up finding a funny collection of crimes on street view:

    http://www.criminaljusticeschools.com/blog/20-crimes-caught-on-google-street-view

  5. David says:

    I don’t think Street View’s an invasion of privacy – it simply documents what a street looks like. Faces are blurred and images can be removed if requested on Street View.

    In fact, as a tool to help someone find a specific location, it’s a more accommodating service than satellite imagery or GPS in that you generally don’t see that many houses removed from satellite imaged maps (i.e. Bing Bird’s Eye or Mapquest Satellite) nor are you able to “de-list” yourself from GPS maps.

    The idea of SV can make people uncomfortable, but I’d rather have looky-loos use SV than creep around my neighborhood’s streets any day.

  6. Craig says:

    Google street view simply shows all the houses on a street without any context. Owners may request from Google to have their home removed from street view.
    Your Monday video was directed on one house in particular with a personal commentary about the house and made insinuating remarks about its owner(s) without their permission, knowledge or chance to defend themselves.
    How is your video less ethical? Because you didn’t reveal the address makes it ethical?

    1. David Fleming says:

      @ Craig

      I don’t think it was “insinuating” anything.

      I think in order to hang naked baby dolls by their necks from your tree, they are certifiably insane. That’s not normal human behaviour. I don’t think I need to be a psychologist to come to this conclusion.

      However, I would relish the opportunity to interview these people and let them “defend themselves.”

      Bring the popcorn!

  7. Richard says:

    I don’t know that you can have much expectation of privacy when you’re outside, even outside your home. If I’m living in a high-rise in a residential neighbourhood, nothing stops me from looking down into the backyard of someone’s house and snapping pictures with my 70-300mm lens. Or taking pictures of someone’s condo across the street (assuming she hasn’t drawn her curtains). (No, I don’t do that — I’m not a pervert.) Unless you choose to live in a bunker, this is the reality. Just exercise some discretion…

  8. jeremy says:

    I suspect that the photo taken by the car above is less invasive than you think, it probably just shows the hedge and maybe the roof of what is likely a huge house or institution behind it. The fine has nothing to do with the photos, but rather the other electronic data the car was collecting. Street view is not really giving any information that you could not have collected by walking down that street. Which is what those planning to break in or do other nefarious deeds are probably already doing.

  9. Graham says:

    Regarding the news article, I think it’s funny that Google got fined for collecting data from unencrypted wireless networks.

    Take some responsibility and secure your own network! It’s not that hard and as Google showed it’s also not that hard for someone to find your unencrypted network and start ripping your data.

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