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Privacy Commissioner Seeks Information about Street-Level Photography Available Online

Ottawa, September 11, 2007 – While satellite and aerial photo images have been available for many years, it is only recently that technology has allowed for this imagery to be shared freely over the internet. Today, these images are available from a number of government organizations and private corporations.

Most of the satellite imagery available is of moderate resolution and only presents an overhead view of the area being photographed. While people can be seen in the images, it is nearly impossible to identify them. As a result, satellite imagery has not generally been considered a violation of personal privacy.

Recent developments in photography and online mapping technologies have raised concerns about the possible violation of personal privacy rights.

Thanks to increasingly inexpensive computing power, new street level photography is just beginning to be integrated with web-based mapping technology. This photography includes major arteries, downtown cores, tourist attractions, business or commercial centers, airports, high growth and developing neighborhoods, and sports facilities and arenas.

While satellite photos, online maps and street level photography have found useful commercial and consumer applications, it remains important that individual privacy rights are considered and respected during the development and implementation of these new technologies.

This is a growing concern among privacy advocates as a number of companies have considered integrating street level photography in their online mapping technologies.

In street level photography the images are, in some cases, being captured using high-resolution video cameras affixed to vehicles as they proceed along city streets.

These cameras naturally capture the images of individuals in the area at the same time. This raises the possibility that individuals, their activities and location can be identified. This would affect their personal privacy rights.

For example, Google’s Street View is one of several services that have been rolled out in some form or another. Street View has produced photographs of locations in the United States that include:

  • A young child standing inside a motor vehicle and looking out the half-open driver’s window from approximately a one metre distance; and
  • A child on the front lawn of what appears to be a private dwelling, from approximately three meters’ distance.

Street View, while not currently deployed in Canada, uses technology and imagery developed by Immersive Media, a company based in Calgary, Alberta.

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner is concerned that street level photography, as currently deployed in the United States, may not meet the basic requirements of Canadian privacy laws.

The Privacy Commissioner has written to Google and Immersive Media to seek further information and assurances that Canadians’ privacy rights will be safeguarded if their technology is deployed in Canada.

The letters to Google and Immersive Media can be found at www.priv.gc.ca.

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