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Privacy and the Changing World of Maps

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Remarks at the PIPA Conference 2009

October 15, 2009
Vancouver, British Columbia

Address by Elizabeth Denham
Assistant Privacy Commissioner of Canada

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Human beings have had a fascination with maps dating back to prehistoric times. The oldest surviving maps were painted on rocks by Neolithic tribesmen and scratched into clay tablets by Mesopotamian cartographers.

But our concept of a “map” is changing rapidly and radically.

While people have been creating maps for thousands of years, privacy concerns have only entered into the picture in the digital age.

This afternoon, I’d like to talk to you about how our Office is addressing some of the latest technological developments involving the use of geospatial information and personal information.

What do I mean?

Well, increasingly, we see location data which connects individuals to a particular location. For example, with cell phone tracking services such as Google Latitude and Loopt you can now allow people to track your location on online maps via signals sent out by your mobile phone.

Meanwhile, Global Positioning Systems, or GPS technology, in cars and cell phone allows parents and employers to find out where their kids and employees are at any particular moment of the day or night.

Another example (and it’s the one I’ll focus on today) is street-level imaging – the technology that allows us to enjoy 360-degree views of the streets of Paris, New York and many other cities around the globe.

All of these new applications involve personal information – which is why mapping technologies are very much on the radar screen for our Office.

As you’ve no doubt heard, Google recently launched the Canadian version of Street View and we can now take a virtual walk through many neighbourhoods in Canada.    

Canpages, meanwhile, had already rolled out its “Street Scene” images for Vancouver and Whistler and the company has also been collecting images in Toronto and Montreal.

Our Office has been in contact with Canpages on numerous occasions over the last couple of months to talk about how the privacy of people captured on camera for Street Scene can be protected.

We’ve also spent a lot of time sharing our thoughts on privacy protection with officials at Google.

I’ll tell you more about those discussions in a moment, but I thought it would be helpful to begin with the backdrop – specifically, how privacy legislation applies.

Personal Information in a Geo-Spatial Context

A key question as we look at how to protect privacy in this context is the following: When does geospatial information become personal information?

Privacy legislation in Canada only applies to “personal information.”

These laws include the federal Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act – or PIPEDA, the federal public sector Privacy Act, as well as provincial legislation in B.C., Alberta and Quebec. Many provinces have standalone health privacy laws, however, only Ontario’s legislation has been declared substantially similar to PIPEDA.

While different pieces of privacy legislation use slightly different wording, definitions of personal information generally relate to the possibility that information could permit an individual to be identified.

In other words, if the information allows for the person to be identified, it’s considered personal information. It generally can’t be collected, used or disclosed without that person’s knowledge and consent.

There’s a common misconception that privacy law doesn’t apply to taking photos of people in public spaces. However, if an organization photographs someone in a public place for a commercial purpose PIPEDA and PIPA clearly do apply. And the law requires that people know when their photo is being taken, and what that photo will be used for. Just as important, it requires their consent. The exceptions to consent are limited to journalistic, artistic and literary pursuits.

In the geospatial context, if an image of a street included people who happened to be walking on the sidewalk when the picture was taken, that image would constitute personal information.

Similarly, if objects in that image could be connected to a particular individual – say a vanity licence plate – that image is considered personal information.

Privacy and the ‘Mashup’

Individual pieces of geospatial information may not allow for the identification of specific people. However, when that same geospatial data is combined with other information, it may become possible to identify people.

For example, a pair of U.S. researchers raised serious concerns that “anonymized” data collected from GPS-enabled devices may not be so anonymous after all. They found that knowing someone’s approximate home and work locations to a block level can uniquely identify them.

Matching back “anonymous” data can be remarkably simple. University of Ottawa researchers have demonstrated how a complete postal code with a date of birth is essentially a unique identifier.

Indeed, the fact that, in many cases, we can attach supposedly anonymous information back to a particular person has resulted in the creation of a new word in the English language – renonymize!

Street-Level Imaging

As I mentioned earlier, we’ve also been looking at privacy and geospatial information in the context of street-level imaging.

We’ve all seen examples of embarrassing moments captured when cameras go out and gather 360‐degree street‐level views.

Street-level imaging applications underscore the challenges of the “mediated public place,” where people go about their business in public, but retain some expectation of privacy.

People recognize, for instance, that other passersby can see them, but they don’t necessarily expect a record of their movements to be uploaded to the Internet – perhaps in perpetuity.

International Reaction

The residents of the U.K. village of Broughton illustrated that view quite dramatically earlier this year when they formed a human chain to block a Google Street View car’s access to their streets. They berated the driver until he turned around and fled.

The reaction in Japan has also been less than friendly. People there have objected to Google Street View on the grounds that it is considered impolite and intrusive to look into the front gardens of Japanese homes. Google agreed to re-photograph cities in the country, altering  the height of cameras so that front gardens are not captured.

Data protection authorities around the world have been wrestling with the issue in different ways.

For example, the UK commissioner had no problem with it. Spain and France also expressed little concern. But that hasn’t been the case in other countries such as Greece and Switzerland.

Greece’s data protection agency told Google to stop collecting images until it resolved concerns around how long images would be retained.

In Switzerland, the federal data protection commissioner told Google over the summer to shut down its Street View maps due to concerns that the blurring technology wasn’t working properly. Google promised some improvements, but its proposals didn’t satisfy the commissioner, who threatened to go to court.

A committee of all European Union member states – the Article 29 Working Party – has also asked Google to take steps to better protect privacy by developing a retention policy.

The Canadian Experience

Here in Canada, Google Street View and Canpages have also sparked a lot of discussion – and concern.

As I mentioned, our Office has been involved in the issue for more than two years.

Members of Parliament have also taken an interest. A Parliamentary committee held hearings last June to look at privacy issues related to online mapping and street-level imagery. We were very pleased to hear the head of Google Canada tell MPs that the company intended to meet the requirements of Canadian privacy legislation before launching here.

The committee hearings are expected to resume soon and we’ve also been asked to appear.

Our Office’s ongoing concerns about the commercial use of street-level imaging technology centre on ensuring that it protects Canadians’ privacy by meeting PIPEDA requirements such as knowledge and consent, safeguards and retention.

I can tell you that we’ve found our discussions with both Google Street View and Canpages productive.  We have seen changes in how the technology is used that mean privacy rights are being better respected.

For example, due to our office’s interventions, Google agreed that photographs of individuals will be blurred when they roll out the application in Canada. Canpages is also blurring faces.

There have been many cases where individuals are still identifiable, even after the blurring process has been applied. The blurring process continues to be improved, but we think more should be done.

Another key concern for us has been the question of notification.

Google and other street-level imaging services should ensure that people receive adequate notification that their images will be captured and uploaded to the Internet.

It would be important for people to have an idea of when a Google or Canpages car will be touring their neighbourhood to collect images.

To do this, companies should include visible marking on their camera vehicles; they could use press releases, local media outlets and web sites to outline dates and locations for filming; and where to go for further information.

Both Google and Canpages are beginning to do a better job of letting people know that their cameras will be out roaming the streets.

The better the notification, the more comfortable we are. We’re aware that the companies have concerns about exhibitionism – this is clearly uncharted territory for all of us.

People also need to be told how they can have their image removed if they don’t want it in a database. There should be an easy, efficient and timely process to allow people to have their images removed.

The companies are establishing take-down processes. Google has made a commitment to contact community organizations – for example, umbrella groups representing women’s shelters – prior to launching Street View in Canada to let them know the process for having images removed.

We’ve also said that companies need to have clear retention period for the original, unblurred images that they collect. Google will permanently “bake” the blurring into images within a year of posting them online. Canpages destroys unblurred images immediately after they have been blurred.

We have worked with our counterparts in B.C., Alberta and Quebec to develop guidance on our expectations on what needs to be done. Our guidelines – which we called Captured on Camera – were issued earlier this year. You can find them on our website.


We will continue to monitor these issues carefully as we go forward.

While we’ve spoken extensively with Google and Canpages, we certainly aren’t giving them a stamp of approval – as some reports have incorrectly suggested. Our Office does not pre-approve business services or provide advance rulings about a service that could later be the subject of a complaint.

That said, we have seen movement in a positive direction in a number of areas and we are well on the way to seeing street-level imaging roll out in a way which better protects privacy rights.

As always, our goal is to seek a reasonable approach – one which allows businesses to be innovative and creative but at the same time remains respectful of Canadians’ privacy.

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