I'm Watching You

Satellite maps and the privacy question

A lot of people have their panties in a twist over Google's satellite maps. They're determined to view this new feature as a serious, scary invasion of privacy.

We should get a few things straight, though. First of all, these kinds of satellite images have been available for decades from the U.S. Geological Survey to anyone with some cash. And for the past couple of years there have been multiple online pay services (like ImageAtlas) offering them in searchable formats, the same way Google is doing right now.

In fact, Google added its satellite feature after buying one of those services, Keyhole, late last year. So all that's really changed is that high-res, searchable satellite maps are free to the grubby masses of Google trawlers. As somebody who advocates open access to information, it's hard for me to be completely unhappy about this development.

I'll admit there's a dark side. Making the satellite images publicly available erodes one of the cornerstones of privacy law, the "reasonable expectation of privacy." When I know that anybody can Google my address, then look at my neighborhood via satellite images, that definitely shrinks the boundaries of my private sphere. Hell, you can even see things like swimming pools and parking spaces in these photos. So I can no longer reasonably expect that the geography of my backyard - or the pathways to my house in a rural area - are safe from prying eyes.

Is my privacy compromised in a truly grievous way? I'm not so sure. Yes, a real estate agency could use these images to rate my neighborhood's desirability in some creepy way, but it's not as if they don't already do that. Nobody can use them to look into my windows or tap my phone line. And these shots aren't even in real time - Keyhole claims they're updated roughly every 18 months - so it's not as if you can peek at whose cars are parked in my driveway right now.

There was a wacky legal case a few years back in which Barbra Streisand sued a nonprofit group called the California Coastal Records Project for invading her privacy with something very similar to Google satellite maps. The group had taken thousands of photographs of the California coastline from the air for historical preservation, and one of the pictures happened to contain a shot of Streisand's groovy beach palace.

A judge rejected her suit because the tiny modicum of privacy she lost was not worth suppressing a worthy public project with such obvious educational and archival purposes. If you look at the picture in question (www.californiacoastline.org/streisand/lawsuit.html), you'll see it was much more detailed than the Google satellite images and yet reveals almost nothing.

What annoys committed privacy advocates about the Google satellite fracas is that it distracts from far more dangerous ways in which our privacy is being invaded with new technologies. Most cell phones on the market today have global positioning systems in them that allow you to be tracked anywhere as long as your cell phone is on. Radio frequency ID tags, a few millimeters across, are sewn into your clothes and passport and library books. These can also be used to track where you're going every time you pass an RFID reader. Don't even get me started on hidden Web cams in public places.

The problem is that these tracking technologies are invisible and complicated. So while all these people are wringing their hands over how simple it is for strangers to discover the color of their roof on Google, we forget that we can already be tracked everywhere we go using cell phones and the RFID chips in Wal-Mart backpacks. And unlike Google satellite maps, there's no transparency with these tracking systems. You can't watch the watchers. So while I mourn poor Streisand's loss of privacy, it could be a lot worse. In fact, it already is.

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who saw your backyard on Google. She also writes a column for Metro, Silicon Valley's weekly newspaper.

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