Lentis/Street View


Street View was developed by internet giant Google for use in conjunction with its Google Maps and Google Earth software. It creates a virtual panorama for many streets around the world from the point of view of a driving car. It is used mainly for navigation purposes, allowing users to identify buildings or landmarks. Recent features include high resolution imaging and a 3D interface that allows users to move along the street. The imaging is done by a fleet of specially equipped cars. Each vehicle is fitted with nine multi-directional cameras, laser range scanners, and GPS units for tracking. In this way, enough data is collected to produce a 360° view with depth information. Google Street View currently covers a majority of North America and Europe, along with several other countries. Additional countries are in the process of being photographed and integrated into the system.

A Google Street View Car

There have been mixed reactions to the implementation of Street View. Google's high resolution photographs of various public spaces around the world have raised several concerns. The outcry has been especially sharp in Europe, where cultural attitudes on privacy have seemed particularly incompatible with Street View's features. In many instances, extreme public and political demands have forced Google to withdraw from countries altogether. On the other hand, Street View has garnered a tremendous amount of support on the internet, where several sites have dedicated themselves to patrolling it.

This section of Lentis is dedicated to studying how this seemingly innocuous technology, intended to aid confused travelers, has provoked almost violent responses across Europe. By contrasting differing cases, it will analyze how cultural views on privacy are directly reflected in the various forms of legal censure Google has experienced since the beginning stages of its Street View project. Finally, it will explain the social and technological measures Google has employed to appease the critics of Street View as well as the effectiveness of these measures. This sociotechnical battle is still ongoing at the time of writing and is likely to continue as the range of Google Street view expands.

The Post Street View SocietyEdit

Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google

The power and appeal of Google Street View lie in its accessibility and applicability. Currently, it is available to anyone with access to a computer or smartphone, making it a go-anywhere, use-anytime technology. It is also useful to virtually anyone, since it addresses a very ubiquitous problem: obtaining reliable directions. Along with its sister technology Google Maps, it has changed the way people give, receive, and interpret directions. Google Maps eliminated the need for general directions, i.e. by street names. Street View, on the other hand, has begun to eliminate the need for specific directions, i.e. navigating by landmarks in order to exactly pinpoint a location or address. In fact, these technologies have become so prevalent that they have become a standard expectation. It has become increasingly common over the years to give directions as a mere address on the assumption that the recipient has access to some sort of internet map or navigation hardware (e.g. GPS).

The implementation of the software has resulted in a tremendous success for Google. Since the introduction of Street View in May, 2007, Google maps has enjoyed a steady increase in internet traffic. At the beginning of 2008, Google Maps constituted about 22% of US internet visits related to travel maps. By the end of the year, that number had jumped to about 66%. [1]

Google CEO Eric Schmidt acknowledges the implications of this success. In a March, 2009 BBC interview he stated, "We're getting controversy over Street View because it's so successful...It turns out that people love see what's going on in their local communities." The CEO supports Google's stance by citing a strong "generational interest" in the development of the technology. A strong backing among the world's younger population, he claims, shows that Street View is the way of the future. Google still protects individual interests by quickly removing unwanted images at the requests of its users. [2]

Street View and the WorldEdit

Privacy LawEdit

The differences in privacy law between the United States(US) and the European Union (EU) have led to varying levels of acceptance of Google's Street View application. One study divided privacy into three sections: decisional (right to make decisions), informational (right to keep personal information private), and local privacy (right to reject physical interaction).[3] However, because of cultural differences, the enforcement of privacy rights is quite dependent on the variation of legislature.

William Prosser offered four torts of privacy.[4] In the US, Prosser's distinctions of privacy were highly respected and adopted by many state legislatures. When applying these four categories to Street View, there is little substance for one to argue that Google has breached any level of privacy. Google only takes images of public areas, and the four categories only protect against private information. Legislation in the US is typically more suited to protect personal privacy from government intervention. It indicates a desire to protect freedom of speech rather than privacy and this is reflected in legislation through the First Amendment.

In the EU, legislation does not reflect the same cultural views as the US.[5] Google is collecting geospatial data. Directive 2007/2/EC of the European Parliament gives a definition of geospatial data as any data with a direct or indirect reference to a specific location or geographical area. Geospatial data is only subject to data protection laws if photos can be linked to specific geo-coordinates and then matched to an owner or resident, or if the data shows personal affairs or matters.[6] Google Street View falls under this definition, becoming subject to data protection laws. Privacy Directive 95/46/EC outlines seven principles to follow concerning the protection of personal data.[7]

Google's ResponseEdit

The EU's stricter privacy legislation posed a problem for Google. To use its images, Google would be legally required to request permission from any individual captured by the cameras.[8] This was an impossible task given that the company had no way of knowing who would be caught by the imaging. To sidestep this obstacle, Google promised to introduce a blurring algorithm that would distort the faces of people on the street and vehicle license plates.[9]

Case StudiesEdit

Many of the particular cultural and social factors underlying the world's reaction to Street View can be described by exploring the interaction between competing social groups in specific cases. With a technology that relies so heavily on human input, its success is heavily predicated on its ability to engender trust and support within its constituency. In Street View's case, with the world as the constituency, the task has become increasingly difficult. The reader should keep in mind that many of the mentioned controversies were current at the time of writing and may have developed substantially.


Simon Davies founded Privacy International (PI) in 1990 to provide individuals personal data protection from government and private corporations.[10] Google's attempt at using a face blurring algorithm was met with resistance when hundreds of people reported to PI that their images were clearly recognizable. PI made a statement to Google claiming it had given false predictions of the capabilities of face blurring and went as far as to rate it as the worst company for protecting personal data.[11] On November 13,2009 the New York Times reported that Swiss officials had filed a lawsuit against Google, claiming that additional measures were needed to ensure images of people were distorted.[12]

Wi-Fi ScandalEdit

On May 15th, 2010 The New York Times reported that Google had admitted to acquiring personal data sent over unencrypted Wi-Fi networks for the previous three years. Google stated it was a mistake and the experimental software was never meant to be included in the Street View capture system. German officials reacted strongly to the incident. Ilse Aigner, the German minister for food, agriculture and consumer protection stated, "This is alarming and further evidence that privacy law is a foreign concept to Google."[13]

Broughton, UKEdit
The Google Street View car on London Road in Broughton. Photo by Paul Jacobs

On April 1, 2009, a Google Street View car was driving near London Road in the village of Broughton, UK. Resident Paul Jacobs spotted the car with its distinguished camera from his home, and was immediately angered that the car appeared to be spying on his private residence. Jacobs quickly roused neighbors, and formed a human barricade to trap the Google car at the end of the street. The police were called, while Jacobs and other neighbors insisted that the driver cease taking photos of their street. [14][15]

In the UK, The Daily Mail reported that the village of Broughton had a "very English response" to the Google Street View incident. In particular, Paul Jacobs justified his response as upholding the tradition that "an Englishman's house is his castle."[16] The carefully chosen language contained in these articles describes these people as upholding "English" values by protesting the Google "spy vans" as a means of persuading others to share their views.

Having encountered no such resistance in its United States implementation, Google did not have a remedial response to this type of incident, and continued to offer no apologies for its perceived breaches of privacy. In an interview with a local news station, a Google representative stated its position that Street View simply documents public areas, and any residents concerned about privacy should blur their property on the site.[17]

In the online community, Google received support from groups both in the United Kingdom and abroad. Following the Broughton incident, users of the social networking site Twitter planned a gathering in the village to take photos of their own from the street, to prove their point that Google’s activities were not a violation of their privacy.The popular U.S.-based technology blog Engadget posted a fake screenshot of a Street View search for Broughton, showing the residents as an angry mob.[18] This image is an excellent example of how pro-Street View social groups portray their opposition as having old-fashioned, outdated views on privacy.


In November 2010, after two years of deliberation with government officials, Google Street View became available for 20 German cities. Heavy pressure from data protection officials forced Google to allow German users to opt out of the service before it went live by blurring images of their houses. Prior to this case, Google had only allowed user-requested changes after activating the service. Of the 8.5 million households photographed, 2.9% chose to be removed. “This shows that 97 percent of German households have no problem with Street View,” said Google spokesman Kay Oberbeck, claiming that Google had made every effort to address all concerns.[19] [20] Some Germans emphatically supported Street View, vandalizing various houses which had refused the service, and leaving signs that read "Google is cool". [21]

The Future of Street ViewEdit

As Google has expanded Street View coverage to Europe and the rest of the world, it has met resistance from residents and governments due to their differing cultural and personal views on privacy. In some cases it has devised a technical solution, such as house blurring, to respond to its critics. While these solutions relieve pressure from the outside, they undermine the usefulness of Street View itself. Recent European Union demands have grown more stringent, asking for a decrease in image storage time from 12 to 6 months as well as increased notification of intended Street View car routes. Google has been unwilling to grant these concessions. Chief technology advocate Michael Jones responded, "I think we would consider whether we want to drive through Europe again, because it would make the expense so draining.” [22] [23] As Google continues to expand coverage, it remains to be seen if it will adopt a more social approach to responding to their critics. Future additions to this chapter should document these developing controversies as well as expand into other areas of the world.


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  8. European Parliament, Initials. (1995). Directive 95/46/ec of the european parliament. Official Journal of the European Union.
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  13. O'Brien, K. (2010, May 15). Google data admission angers european officials. The New York Times, p. B5.
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  17. Anglia News Broughton Google Street View complaints & Luton Vauxhall Workers job, YouTube (Interview). http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bENbFNIIFhk
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  19. O'Brien, K.J. (2010, October 21). 244,000 germans opt out of google mapping service. The New York Times, Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/21/technology/21google.html
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  21. Wilson, D. (2010, November 24). German google street view supporters throw eggs at blurred houses. TechEye, Retrieved from http://www.techeye.net/internet/german-google-supporters-throw-eggs-at-blurred-street-view-houses
  22. Ingram, M. (2010, February 26) EU Wants Google Street View Curbed. Gigaom, Retrieved from http://gigaom.com/2010/02/26/eu-google-street-view/
  23. Rach, C. (2010, March 3) Google May Drop Street View in EU if Photo Storage Time Is Cut. Bloomberg Businessweek, Retrieved from http://www.businessweek.com/news/2010-03-03/google-may-drop-street-view-in-eu-if-photo-storage-time-is-cut.html