Google and Apple are bent on a mission to provide the world — or at least users of their respective technologies — with digital images of every place on this planet. Using their systems is the only way many people can see for themselves what everyday life is like in faraway places.
However, as these companies set about mapping local communities, they are capturing actual people as they go about their everyday activities — and publishing those images.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., has taken exception, and has sent a written request to both Apple and Google that they put safeguards in place to protect privacy as they deploy their so-called “military-grade spy planes.”
The high-resolution 3D mapping technology being used is strong enough to see through windows, catch sunbathers in their backyards, and record images that are as small as 4 inches, Schumer pointed out.
Schumer is asking the companies to provide notification to communities being mapped, as well as to blur photos of individuals, give property owners the right to opt out from the mapping of their property, and work with law enforcement to blur sensitive infrastructure details.
Schumer’s office did not respond to our request for further details.
It is unclear what recourse Schumer has if Apple and Google decline to make these accommodations — or, perhaps more likely, hesitate and hedge with their responses.
What Google and Apple are doing is not against the law, Joel R. Reidenberg, a professor at Fordham University School of Law, told TechNewsWorld. Passing a law to make their activities illegal would be complicated, as it could easily butt up against the First Amendment.
“If an object or person is in plain sight from a vantage point that is the public domain, it is not illegal to watch or take pictures,” he said. That includes objects or persons inside a building.
The typical example is a house with a picture window and the shades up, said Reidenberg. “Someone standing on a public street can watch to see what is happening in the house, take pictures, and even sell those pictures.”
The problem is that Google’s and Apple’s use of technology is greatly expanding the concept of public domain, he continued. For example, someone who lives in a New York City apartment on the 35th floor might not worry too much about drawing her shades. Still, she could be photographed — legally — in her home by one of Google’s or Apple’s drones.
There are some nuances to the law, Reidenberg added, but nothing that would dramatically change the story line.
Several states have so-called “Peeping Tom” laws that make it illegal to photo someone in a state of undress when they are in their private homes. However, the planes used by Apple and Google would have be to shown to be specifically targeting an individual to violate such a statute, he said.
It is also possible some tort rules might apply — such as an unwarranted intrusion into private space. However, “it would be difficult for an individual to bring such a suit,” Reidenberg said.
Reasonable Expectation of Privacy
In general, consumers can’t claim to have a reasonable expectation of privacy from another private sector company, he added. “That is a standard that is applicable to the government only.”
What is ironic is that while the government would have a hard time legally taking such pictures, it could buy them from Apple or Google and use them in prosecution, Reidenberg pointed out.
Public Perception Backlash
The only club Schumer and other like-minded officials have — at least, the only one that can easily be wielded — is the fear of negative publicity, David Johnson, principal with Strategic Vision, told TechNewsWorld.
Publicized examples of the “right” cases — such as someone in a penthouse apartment photographed, or detailed photographs of a sensitive power plant or other piece of infrastructure — could easily lead to public outcry, he said.
The timing is ripe for such as story to get traction, Johnson added. “The summer time is when we see certain stories take off that wouldn’t necessarily last more than one or two days in the news cycle in the fall.”
Apple and Google did not respond to our requests to comment for this story.