Monday, 13 June 2016 02:28

Privacy concerns with Google Street View should be addressed


The Indian government recently refused to grant Google permission to cover India through Google Street View. The widely cited reason for this is security concerns, such as panoramic images available will aid terrorist attacks, and the sensitive areas such as nuclear establishments and defence areas can be exposed. It is suggested that this rejection is temporary, and will be reconsidered once the draft Geospatial Information Regulation Bill is finalised and passed. While the Geospatial Bill itself is widely criticised for the severe restrictions it places on the use of geospatial data, it can only resolve one half of the problem with the case of Street View – security concerns. Street View presents a more widespread issue – the issue of violation of people’s privacy through the taking and worldwide publishing of their images.

Geospatial bill can only tackle security issues

A mere photograph, particularly of sensitive areas, is dangerous from a security point of view. The 360 degree, panoramic, ‘feet on the ground’ photograph, as offered by Google Street View, is enough to get any reasonable government concerned. The Geospatial Bill, in its present form, is certainly broad enough to regulate Google’s Street View activities. The Geospatial Bill, however, makes no provision for safeguarding individual privacy. The government may, through its provisions, grant Google the permission to photograph Indian locations, but it cannot authorise Google to violate individual privacy.

Street View’s blurring policy is not adequate

The panoramic images as offered by Google obviously capture people, homes and other events at the location. Photographs are often taken without any warning, and certainly without the prior consent of the person getting photographed. Street View’s privacy policy states that information based on which a person can be identified, such as a person’s face and car license number plates are automatically blurred out. Often despite the blurring, a person can be identified. Street View therefore also allows people to request Google to blur out images which they feel are violative of their privacy.

The case of photographing of a home or any other personal property is relatively easy to resolve, since all a person has to do is access Street View, check that image and request blurring. The case of photographing individuals, on the other hand, is not as simple. It isn’t possible for a person to constantly check Google Street View to ensure that no compromising images of them have been caught. Images on Google Street View may be from a few weeks to a few years old. It is hardly possible for people to go back that far in time and ensure that their privacy is not infringed.

Street View Angkor Wat Google

Additionally, the blurring policies do not apply to user-contributed images, which means people’s faces, license plate numbers, etc., will not be automatically blurred out in such images. A person’s remedy will be to first try to resolve the dispute with the person contributing the image, and only if he fails can he ask Google to remove it. In the era we live in, any delay in removing such images can result in them being broadcast and viewed by the whole world. Moreover, images from Google Street View can be downloaded, and there will be nothing to prevent a person from saving such images before they are blurred out. Yet another problem is that Google retains the original, unblurred images. A limit of six months was attempted to be imposed on Google, but Google retains them for up to a year.

Right to privacy in public places under Indian laws

Interestingly, there are no Indian laws governing photography in a public place. The general rule is that in a public place, an individual cannot reasonably expect a right to privacy. For example, if a person is accidentally captured in a photograph of a public place, say a historical monument, taken on a smartphone, then he cannot claim that it violates his privacy. However Street View represents a different case. The photograph is taken without either a warning to the individual or the individual’s consent, and can be made available for (literally) the whole world to see, possibly for an eternity.

Indian laws provide people with recourse for certain images only. The Information Technology Act, 2000 and the Indian Penal Code, 1860, will protect people against the capture and publishing of certain types of images, such as capturing obscene images, private acts, capturing pictures of a woman without her consent, etc. The problem again is, that these laws are designed to protect people from acts such as voyeurism, and are certainly not designed to protect against a violation of privacy. A photograph of a person may simply be embarrassing, or a person may just not want his picture up on the internet. Surely, every individual has the right to decide whether or not he wants an image of his to be taken and published.

India’s draft Personal Data (Protection) Bill is perhaps better designed to protect this problem. It provides that no personal data, which is any data based on which a person can be identified, can be collected without the person’s prior informed consent. Until the Bill is passed, however, the only recourse available to people is under the right to privacy, as guaranteed under the Indian Constitution. This is broad enough to include the right to privacy in a public place as well.

Individual privacy must also be safeguarded before Street View is permitted

Other countries have begun to impose certain requirements on Street View, such as requiring it to inform the public in advance before it photographs that area, such as through the publication of an ad in a newspaper. Countries have also suggested that people be given the option of ‘opting in’ to be photographed instead of the current opt-out mechanism available with Google Street View. Any progress in the digital era is invariably involving a conflict between individual privacy and the public good. If Google Street View is for the public good, then the government must take adequate steps to protect not just national security, but also individual privacy.



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