Vicki Van Valin, a resident of Oregon, and Neil Mertz, who lives in Washington state, filed a class action lawsuit against Google. The lawsuit claims Google violated their rights under their states' privacy rights and the federal Wiretap Act when cars Google used to collect data for its Street View tool collected private information from their computers. It's claimed Google used "packet sniffers" to collect information from their home-based Wi-Fi connections.
The suit asks for punitive damages, as well as damages under the Wiretap Act. That's $100 per person for each day their private information was collected, or $10,000 for each member in the class, whichever is greater.
Google's legal problems aren't limited to the US, either. There are reports law enforcement officials in Germany, Spain, and Italy are investigating Google's collection of personal information though open Wi-Fi connections. The investigations are on-going, but Google has admitted to collecting and storing personal information.
Recent reports show Google Street View is taking its cameras - and you - off the streets and into stores. This new technology lets you take a virtual tour and browse the store's shelves from the comfort of your home.
Although it hasn't been unveiled yet, in fact Google had "no comment" when asked about it, there's already discussion about the pros and cons. On one side, it's a convenience for shoppers and free publicity for storeowners. On the other side,there's concern over the privacy rights of storeowners.
The privacy issue may be nothing, really. Apparently, the new tool - like Street View - provides still-shots. It's not as if there's a web cam in the stores! And Google needs a storeowner's permission before it starts taking shots in side the store.
It may only be a rumor anyway.On top of Google's refusal to confirm or deny the new "store view" tool, one report notes only one storeowner has been asked by a "Google photographer" to take pictures. The same report suggests that the photographer used the wrong camera for a "store view" tool.
However, another report says the opposite: More than one retailer has been approached and the photographer used the same type of camera used for the Street View images.
Google Street View, one of the many Google features, enables you to get a 360-degree view of any address. It even lets people virtually stroll down the street and get a crystal clear image of their homes and streets. Google uses cars and bikes fitted with cameras to capture images of real-world locations, which are then added to Google's online maps.
Ahhh, Look at All the Lonely People
Some have used this feature to eagerly scope out their homes, their neighbors' homes, their current girlfriend's/boyfriend's homes, etc. Other users are not too happy with this feature. Sir Paul McCartney, a former Beatle, was livid at this option and demanded that Google remove his home from the site.
"I've always wondered what was over Paul McCartney's fence. It's an open secret in the neighborhood which is his house. He has the sort of gates...and a wall so high you can't walk past and cast a casual glance into the front window. Now thanks to Google Street View, not only have I hurdled the barricades to peek, I have also read the number plates of the cars parked behind his forbidding gates."1
Other than privacy concerns, fears include burglaries or terrorists being able to monitor homes, as well as uncovering illicit affairs, when faces and images, as well as vehicles, can clearly be observed on the Web page. Google has captured many controversial - and embarrassing - images, including a man exiting a sex shop and another vomiting in public.
Google Says We Can Work It Out
Google spokesmen say they've complied with McCartney's request, and reassured the public that anyone can remove their house from the site by a simple click of a button.
Google Street View has been expanding worldwide. It is currently available in the US, United Kingdom, Netherlands, France, Italy, Spain, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. However, this feature has raised privacy concern worldwide; Greece has blocked this feature, at least temporarily; and in Britain, regulators have permitted this service, so long as faces and addresses are blurred. The Pentagon has banned Google Earth teams from making maps of US military bases.
Google faced several lawsuits in the United States by people who did not want their homes photographed. Google's response was, "Today's satellite-image technology means that...complete privacy does not exist." In any event, at least in the US, you can find pictures of homes and other real estate online, usually on the web site of your local property tax office.
Google has stated that its ultimate goal is to provide this feature in the entire world. Calls to shut down this service have been rejected. Google's chief executive Eric Schmidt shrugs, "We get sued every day." He continued, "We are getting controversy over street view because it is so successful. It turns out that people love to see what is going on in their local community."
What Does the Law Say about Privacy?
Privacy laws vary from state to state and there is no clear cut right to privacy.
- When you are in a public place, there is less of a right to privacy
- However, when you are in a private residence, there is more of an expectation of privacy. If Google captures such an image, then your rights are potentially compromised
- Even more complicated, there is a potential copyright issue if Google publishes your image of you or your house
This is still a new issue, one to be alert to.
Here's a link to access Google Street View. If you think your privacy has been compromised, you can click on "report a problem" and describe the problem. The feature "Privacy Concern" permits you to report inappropriate content, or delete a photograph of a face, a house or car/license plate. In the meantime, be careful, you don't know who is potentially watching.
1Mark Stephens, Google Street View and Paul McCartney's Hugely High Wall, Times Online, March 26, 2009, http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/law/article5976443.ece, accessed June 23, 2009.
Questions for Your Attorney
- What is the scope of the privacy I can expect in my home and in my yard?
- Are there any state laws or local ordinances addressing these new, technology-related privacy issues?
- Have there been any similar cases filed in the courts in our area, and if so, what was the outcome?