Geo Week News

June 20, 2012

Are privacy concerns a threat to mobile mapping growth?

Mobile mapping and mapping on mobile devices have been big news lately, especially because of Apple’s announcement last week that it would be disentangling itself from Google Maps in its iOS 6 release, and introducing its own mapping functionality (something we told you would happen when Apple bought C3). However, is there a potential hurdle lurking out there that might keep mobile mapping from racing forward?

New York Senator Chuck Schumer sure seems like one, and I’m guessing he represents more than a few other people. Yesterday, he put out a press release that expressed some serious concerns about the kind of aerial mapping that fuels those cool 3D cities Apple can make because of C3, along with the overhead views in general:

U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer today raised concerns over Apple’s and Google’s reported digital mapping plans that use military-grade spy planes with enough precision to see through windows, catch detailed images of private backyard activities, and record images as small as four inches. In a letter to the companies, Schumer called for Apple and Google to put measures in place that require prior notification of mapping, blurs photos of individuals, gives property owners the ability to opt out from mapping of their homes, and that requires coordination with law enforcement to blur our sensitive infrastructure details. While programs like Google Maps and Google Earth have provided satellite imagery in the past, the level of precision that is reported to be obtained with these newly employed technologies, and potentially made available to the public, is unprecedented. Schumer is asking for both companies to more fully explain the safeguards they intend to put in place to protect privacy needs and security.

I like, personally, the way the speech-writer inserted “spy planes” into the paragraph. Um, they’re just normal planes with really nice cameras on them. But just how much more insidious does this whole operation seem when you put in the words “spy planes”? Well done, speech-writer guy. 

More to the point, however, is that this is already a concern with Google StreetView, so I’m not sure why Schumer is just raising this issue now. Perhaps he just learned they have the Internet on computers now. Regardless, once someone of his stature raises the issue, balls can start rolling downhill. 

Does mobile laser scanning create privacy issues? Well, if it’s creating colorized point clouds so dense they look like video when you fly through them, then yes. And certainly services like Fugro’s ARAN and earthmine, which deliver ortho-rectified video of incredible resolution, present privacy concerns as well. And it’s not just looking in windows and that sort of thing. There are plenty of places where people would not want permanent documentation of their presence: I’ll leave that up to your imagination. 

The one thing with StreetView is that at least there are natural barriers that would keep the video from moving too far from the curbside. With aerial video, there are really no places that wouldn’t be open to view if they weren’t under roof. 

As Schumer says:

“By taking detailed pictures of individuals in intimate locations such as around a pool, or in their backyard, or even through their windows, these programs have the potential to put private images on public display. We need to hit the pause button here and figure out what is happening and how we can best protect peoples’ privacy, without unduly impeding technological advancement,” said Schumer.

Laugh that off if you want, but there are some untoward images already being captured. There are a number of web sites, actually, dedicated to nothing more than funny and lurid things caught by Google’s StreetView already. Here’s one

Would you be psyched if this was you (or your daughters), coming up as part of a location search?:


To their credit, Google does an impressive job of removing offending images pretty quickly, and we’re mostly left with screen captures online, but will that satiate representatives and senators looking to keep your prying eyes out of their constituents’ backyards? I’ve got a feeling the regulations are coming. What will they dictate? Will they have an understanding of the technology and its potential uses? Will they be driven by Apple and Google and not the mapping and surveying professions, and is that the way it should be?

This is an issue that will be on the front-burner soon – perhaps you should contact GTMA or MAPPS or another organization you’re involved with and express some concern that they be on top of lobbying for the 3D capture industry on these issues specifically. 

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