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U.S. Sen. Schumer Asks Google And Apple About Their “Spy Planes” – Afraid They’ll Catch Sunbathers

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As Google and Apple step up their mapping efforts, they are apparently raising some eyebrows in Washington. Today, U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer wrote a letter to Google’s CEO Larry Page and Apple’s CEO Tim Cook. In this letter, he asks the them about their “highly sensitive photography equipment.” In order to avoid that his constituents in Buffalo have to worry about Google and Apple catching them barbecuing on their back deck, Schumer is asking the two companies to include a number of privacy and security provisions. Schumer is also worried that criminals and terrorists could use these detailed images to “create more complete schematic maps of the power and water grids in the United States.” In a statement that accompanied the letter, Schumer also said that he was afraid the technology could be “strong enough to see through windows and even catch sun bathers in back yards.”

Specifically, Schumer is asking the two companies for three security and privacy provisions:

  • Provide notification to communities as to when you plan to conduct mapping
  • Automatically blur photos of individuals who are captured, and give property owners the right to opt-out of having the company map their homes
  • Put protocols in place with law enforcement and local municipalities to ensure that sensitive infrastructure details are blurred from published maps

Until now, says Schumer, the quality of the imagery available in Google Maps and Google Earth wasn’t good enough to warrant these measures. Now, however, as the two companies are ramping up their efforts to create detailed 3D maps (Google says its 3D maps will cover the residencies of over 300 million people by the end of the year), it’s time to start worrying about these issues.

With their “military-grade” equipment, Apple’s and Google’s ‘spy planes’ will also be able to display details of security sensitive sites (Google, it’s worth noting, already blurs quite a few military installations and other sensitive sites around the world).

“It’s imperative,” says Schumer, “that these companies disclose their plans for protecting privacy of both individuals and sensitive infrastructure, their publication intentions, and their plans for including public consent in the mapping process.” Just like with Street View in Germany, Schumer would also like Google and Apple to give homeowners the ability to blur their houses on the companies’ maps.

In a statement to Talking Points Memo’s Carl Franzen, Google said that its 3D maps won’t offer any significantly higher resolution than its current maps. “We appreciate the Senator’s concerns and we look forward to meeting with him to demonstrate how the imagery used to develop our 3D models is similar to what’s already publicly available in 2D mapping products. We currently don’t blur aerial imagery because the resolution isn’t sharp enough for it to be a concern.”

Here is a copy of the full letter to Google and Apple:

Dear Apple and Google,

I write today over the recent revelations that your companies are using highly sensitive photography equipment to take pictures of cities and towns across the country for your respective mapping products. These disclosures are potentially troubling, and I request that the privacy and security of Americans remain your top priority as you deploy new mapping and imaging capability.

It has been reported that some of these sensitive cameras can take pictures of objects up to four inches wide. I fear that this clarity may allow your mapping programs to take detailed pictures of people in intimate locations such as around a pool or in someone’s backyard. People on Long Island or in Buffalo have a reasonable expectation of privacy when they decide to have a barbeque on their back deck and would prefer to retain the option of deciding whether they should be photographed on their property. They should not fear that your planes will be overhead taking detailed pictures of their private events.

Detailed photographs could also provide criminals and terrorists with detailed views of sensitive utilities. On current online maps, many power lines, power sub stations, and reservoir access points are visible only at low resolutions. However, if highly detailed images become available, criminals could create more complete schematic maps of the power and water grids in the United States. With the vast amount of infrastructure across the country, it would be impossible to secure every location.

Therefore, I request that your mapping programs include three separate privacy and security provisions:

1) Provide notification to communities as to when you plan to conduct mapping

2) Automatically blur photos of individuals who are captured, and give property owners the right to opt-out of having the company map their homes

3) Put protocols in place with law enforcement and local municipalities to ensure that sensitive infrastructure details are blurred from published maps

I hope that you would be willing to work with my office on this very important issue and ensure the security and privacy of all Americans.

Image credit: Google Earth Hacks