Candid cameras

In addition to offering slick and powerful new applications, the geoWeb brings new challenges to privacy.

'The issue is whether and how that information is going to be stored, and what legal protections will exist to prevent others from accessing it,' said Kevin Bankston, an attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. 'A comprehensive dossier of all your movements is very clearly a sensitive collection of information. People need to be wary of adopting these services without being fully informed about exactly what information is being collected and stored and under what circumstances it will be accessed.'

Two obvious threats are street photography ' such as Google's new Street View ' and location-based services.

Suppose you join a service such as Loopt, which tracks your location using the Global Positioning System and feeds that information ' the location of nearby friends, for example ' related to your current location. Who might gain access to that information? Police? Your employer?

Bankston said federal law is not clear about what protections apply to such information. The Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 did not specifically anticipate location-based Internet services.

'Our goal is to ensure that the strongest protections in ECPA would apply to stored records of your location, and also that the government must meet a very high bar ' i.e., obtain a search warrant ' before they track your location in real time.'

Bankston added that Loopt, for one, actually sets a good example for privacy protection. 'Each time you report your position, [Loopt] overwrites the previous record of your position,' he said. If the government or a civil litigant went to Loopt with the idea of issuing a subpoena seeking to discover every place someone has been for the past month, for example, Loopt 'has the best answer possible, which is 'We don't have that. We don't keep that information,' ' Bankston said.

To collect images for street photography, a number of mapping companies send unmarked vans to photograph city streets, which creates the risk that citizens could be caught unawares in some sort of compromising situation. Bankston said he himself was photographed ' and his image subsequently displayed on the Internet ' by Google Earth sneaking a cigarette outside his San Francisco office.

'My concern here isn't so much for people like me who are caught smoking, but [for] people in much more compromising or embarrassing positions who might have been captured by Google's unmarked camera van,' Bankston said. 'Say, someone walking out of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting or an abortion clinic, or being photographed at a controversial political or religious event.'

Bankston said he was able to get Google to remove his image from the Internet, but it wasn't easy.

As technology changes, so do your concepts of privacy in public places, Bankston said. 'Although as a general rule I don't think what [Google] is doing is illegal, there is definitely a possibility that there are photos in Street View that could walk up to the line of liability or maybe even cross it.'

'It's these kinds of social-norms questions that get pressed whenever a new technology like this debuts,' he said.

About the Author

Patrick Marshall is a freelance technology writer for GCN.


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