The tiny city of North Oaks, Minn., has two words for Google: Keep out. The town doesn't want images of its streets and homes on Street View in Google Maps. Google has agreed to take down the images.
The town's residents say it's a matter of privacy. The roads in this lakeshore community north of Minneapolis are privately owned and the city enforces its trespassing ordinance. The North Oaks Golf Club represents a substantial amount of the town's real estate. Residents say Google broke the law when it came onto private roads and took photos.
"It's not the hoity-toity folks trying to figure out how to keep the world away," Mayor Thomas Watson told the Star-Tribune. "They really didn't have any authorization to go on private property." The mayor added, "You had a guy with a dashboard camera going around taking pictures. They wouldn't be able to film on your property and advertise it."
Of course it's not the first time Street View has caused controversy. Last month, the Pentagon banned Google from military installations after Google staffers photographed Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas. And governments from Russia to Saudi Arabia have expressed concern about the images appearing on Google Earth, a satellite-mapping site.
The case of North Oaks may be unique as a case of a town asking to be wiped off the Google map. The North Oaks City Council sent a letter to Google in January asking that its images be removed and threatening to cite the company for trespassing. Google has removed the images, Google spokesperson Elaine Filadelfo said. "This is very rare where an entire town would request to be taken off," she told the Star-Tribune.
Drivers with mounted cameras take photos for Google's Street View feature and since the North Oaks streets are clearly marked with no-trespassing signs, it's highly likely these drivers were trespassing. Filadelfo said the drivers probably didn't see the signs. "Certainly private roads are something we take seriously," Filadelfo said. "But it may not be immediately apparent with a whole city."
Where Does Privacy Start?
While the Street View images are gone, one can still view the homes of North Oaks via the satellite images on Google Maps, Google Earth and similar mapping programs from Microsoft and Yahoo. But since those images are taken from space, the same privacy rights do not apply.
The right to take these images is based on the legal doctrine that there is no reasonable expectation of privacy on public streets. Thus, Google vehicles can drive along public thoroughfares and photograph whatever they can see. While legally sound in the U.S, the practice has picked up some unsavory images over time, such as a man leaving a strip club, a man scaling an iron grate, and two women sunbathing topless.
Google has always been responsive to removing images upon request. After the Sam Houston incident, Google spokesperson Larry Yu said, "We've been pretty clear with people that if they're concerned with the imagery, we try to make it easier and easier to submit requests to get the imagery taken down. That's helped mitigate issues of privacy."