Google Sued over Street View Imaging Program

Published June 1, 2008

A Franklin Park, Pennsylvania couple is suing Google, Inc., for violating their right to privacy with the company’s Street View program.

Aaron and Christine Boring filed papers on April 2 with the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas, seeking $25,000 in punitive damages for mental anguish and diminished property value.

The couple has included in their court papers a request to have the photos of their house erased from the Street View database.

The case originated in June 2007 when Google began sending vans across the United States to capture digital images for its online mapping program.

The Borings say one of the reasons they moved to Franklin Park, a suburb of Pittsburgh, was seclusion from high amounts of traffic. The entrance to their street is marked as private by the street’s residents, to avoid solicitation.

Privacy Concerns

The couple became concerned when they noticed detailed photos of their swimming pool on Google. They believe the photos could not have been taken from a public street and decided to seek legal action.

The official complaint filed with the Allegheny County Common Pleas Court states the family’s concerns. “The acts of Defendant Google constitute an intentional and/or grossly reckless invasion on Plaintiffs’ seclusion,” the argument states. “To drive up Plaintiffs’ driveway and stop in proximity to the residence, garage and swimming pool, Defendant significantly disregarded Plaintiffs’ privacy interest.”

Dennis Moskal, the couple’s attorney, has stated publicly the company has little accountability for its Street View program without legal action.

Public Use Permissible

The case brought by the Borings faces the problem of “final use” of the photos, according to Professor Kenneth Hirsch of Duquesne University’s School of Law.

“Existing law protects people from the uninvited publication of the picture for profit, but not from the uninvited publication of their picture in a news story,” Hirsch said. “If that action violates individual rights, how about a telephone listing that is not consented to in advance, or public listing of names and addresses on tax rolls?”

The Allegheny County Office of Property Assessments Web site has photos similar to those available via Google Street View, but Moskal says there is a significant difference between the public photos taken by county assessors and Google’s pursuit of close photos on a private road.

The county’s photos of the Boring property were taken near the time of purchase on October 10, 2006 as part of a countywide assessment process.

New Laws Unlikely

Legislative action by Congress or the state legislature is unlikely, says Michael J. Madison, a University of Pittsburgh law professor. He said, “The program is pretty new, and the scale of the benefits and harms not well established.” Madison noted, “any legislation runs a substantial risk of doing more harm than good.”

Robert Atkinson of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation agrees. “People should expect that their activities in public may be recorded and that these recordings may find their way online,” he said.

The foundation’s president, Dr. Ronald Atkinson, offered a similar view. “Individuals should be able to maintain a certain degree of privacy, even in public, which is why we have laws against stalking and harassment,” he noted. But he places Google Street View into a category of “benign tools” that “should not be banned simply because they come with some risk.”

Remedies Available

Representatives of Google, Inc. have stated in several interviews the case has no merit because there is an established process for removing photos from the Web site.

An individual pictured on Google Street View can request removal by providing his or her name, address, and Street View address and a sworn statement of accurate information and valid photo ID.

Google’s policy includes a provision stating that the firm “will temporarily remove the Street View image pending receipt of your ID verification. If we have not received … your photo ID within five days, then we will restore the panorama back to Street View.”

The Borings’ suit is the first brought against Google for its Street View Program.

Nicholas Katers ([email protected]) writes from Franklin, Wisconsin.