Someone taking pictures of your house?


Since the implementation of the PATRIOT ACT, it seems like privacy concerns have come to the front of public discussion; nationally as well as right here in St. Augustine.

I’ve been reading a lot lately about Google Street Views – an enhanced service to the popular Google Maps website that allows visitors to click through actual photographs of residences and businesses taken from the street and organized by address.

In a December article written by Marcia Lane that appeared in The Record, she reported that Google photographers were combing the streets of St. Augustine as part of their Jacksonville metro area update.

In a photograph taken by Peter Willott, Larry Melfi was shown driving a car with special high resolution cameras attached to its roof. Melfi was photographing Treaty Park, off Wildwood Drive, in St. Augustine.

Melfi is working for Google Maps to photograph parts of the St. Augustine area in better detail.

Elaine Filadelfo, a spokeswoman for Google who was quoted in the article, said “the high-definition cameras on top of the cars are programmed to gather the images. The person behind the wheel is more of a driver than a photographer”.

What Lane’s article didn’t tell you is that photographs taken by Google Street Views “drivers” continue to generate controversy. Since its launch in May 2007, the feature has prompted questions about whether it constitutes an invasion of privacy, complaints about inappropriate images, and even a lawsuit.

In a lawsuit filed by a Pittsburg couple, they allege Google’s Street View team traveled down their private road and continued taking images all the way up to the couple’s home. The images were then posted to Google Maps and included close-ups of the couple’s home, swimming pool, and outbuildings.

Google’s response? “Complete privacy does not exist in this world except in a desert, and anyone who is not a hermit must expect and endure the ordinary incidents of the community life of which he (or she) is a part.”

That’s not too encouraging for those of us concerned about our privacy.

Could St. Augustine residents find themselves in the same situation as Betty Webb in Humboldt County, California, who says Street View drivers went past two “no trespassing” signs as they photographed the 1,200 foot private road leading up to her house?

In an analysis done by PressDemocrat.com, I read that Google Street View drivers reportedly went on over 100 private roads in Sonoma County.

In another incident reported by PressDemocrat.com, Street View drivers ignored a “no trespassing” sign, passed through a gate, and drove through someone’s yard on a dirt road near Freestone.

Today I read a Medium Blue e-zine article written by Brian Cooper that reported a Pentagon request that Google erase some images of military bases taken from public streets due to the potential threat those images posed to national security.

In a quote attributed to General Gene Renuart, commander of U.S. Northern Command, he said Google Street Views “actually show where all the guards are. It shows how the barriers go up and down. It shows how to get in and out of buildings,” Both St. Augustine and Jacksonville have secure military facilities; the Department of Military Affairs for the State of Florida is headquartered on Marine Street.

I wonder if those photographs are going to appear.

So, what could be the local consequences of Street View?

While the feature has reportedly been used to aid police in a kidnapping investigation, I agree with Cooper who thinks the feature could be far more useful to criminals.

For example, a criminal could use Street View to case a neighborhood – checking Street View for cars that are parked in garages or driveways so they could know when someone isn’t at home. A burglar might scan the yards and windows for any signs indicating that homes have security systems or to check the proximity of neighboring houses.

Using Street View and Google’s satellite imagery, bad guys might look for signs of pets that could pose problems for a thief, see if the homes have newspapers delivered which might help the thief determine if the residents were on vacation, and, assuming the criminal found a good candidate, select a few potential access points (like open windows) for breaking into the home.

If the Street View car happened to pass through your neighborhood on garbage day, the camera might even capture the box of that new HDTV you just got.

Unfortunately, if you are concerned about privacy issues, the burden for learning about them is your own. You can ask that private images be removed from Google’s website, but, unless current laws are changed, if you don’t ask; don’t expect Google to.

While Google’s stated mission is to “organize the world’s information and make it accessible and useful” — in my opinion, the company should thoroughly consider how that information can adversely impact the same people it is meant to help.

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