In order to enhance Google Maps, Google has added an interesting feature: 360 degree images of major cities. The images are created by taking vast numbers of photographs and then linking them together to allow for virtual walkthroughs.
When Google photographed New York City, the camera array used was good, but not quite good enough to capture very clear images of people. So, for example, you would clearly see that there are people on the streets, but you would not be able to get enough detail to clearly recognize a person’s face.
When Google took its photos of San Francisco, it used a much better camera array. Unlike the New York City photographs, the San Francisco photos are high enough quality that individual’s faces can clearly be recognized. Not surprisingly, some of the photos might show people in places they would rather not be seen or doing things they would rather not have captured on film. Perhaps the most famous example of this is the photo of a man in front of a strip club (see drudgereport.com).
Not surprisingly, this sort of thing raises many ethical concerns about privacy.
A reasonable case can be made that Google is doing nothing wrong in photographing cities and posting these photos for all to see. This case is as follows: when a person is in a public area, they have no moral expectation of privacy. This is because a public are is, by definition, public. If someone is doing something in public that they would not want people to see, then they cannot accuse these witnesses of doing something wrong. If they did not wish to be seen doing something, then they should not do that something in public. That is, after all, what private places are for. The same reasoning applies to seeing people near or in places where they would rather not be seen. If they do not wish to bee seen in such public places, then they should not go there. So if Google photographs a person in a public area, the company is doing nothing wrong.
It might be countered that while a person has no expectation of privacy in public places, there is an important difference between seeing a person and taking a picture of that person. To use an analogy, this is very much like the distinction between seeing someone and seeing someone and then telling people about seeing them. Seeing someone is obviously not wrong, but telling on them might be a violation of privacy. For example, if I happen to spot another professor going into an “adult” store as I drive by, then I have done nothing wrong. But, if I go and tell my students and colleagues about this, then it does seem that I would be doing something morally questionable. After all, my reporting on him could be harmful to him in terms of his reputation and in other ways. Likewise, taking a photograph of someone going into an “adult” store and posting it online could also harm them. This does have the potential to be morally questionable.
This is a reasonable point. Intentionally taking a picture of someone in such an embarrassing situation and posting it does seem to be a harmful and perhaps even malicious action. If Google did seek out people doing such things and post them, then there would be grounds for concern. This is for two reasons. First, while there is no expectation of privacy in public, there is a reasonable expectation that people will not publicize what they see. Second, while there is nothing wrong with stumbling across such an embarrassing situation, intentionally trying to find such situations does seem rather malicious. Of course, Google (unlike some people) is not intentionally trying to find such things. When something embarrassing ends up on Google, it is almost certainly by accident and hence Google is not doing anything wrong. To use an analogy, if I stake out an “adult” store to photograph customers and post them online, I would be acting like a jerk. But, if I happened to accidentally catch a person in a photograph I was taking of friends beside a historical site near the “adult” store, then I would be doing nothing wrong. The person would be in there by chance and not intent. And, of course, intent is a relevant difference. By analogy, think about the difference between tripping and slamming into someone by accident and intentionally charging into them to hurt them.
It might be objected that if I posted the photo online knowing that it had the embarrassing element, then I would still be doing something wrong. This has some merit. Perhaps Google should edit their photos and remove such images-after all, they are responsible for what they put online. It might be objected that they do not have the time to check all the images. This is a reasonable reply, given the scope of their project. However, they should have the courtesy to remove such images when they are found.
Naturally, the best way to avoid having embarrassing things appear on Google images is to not do such things. After all, if you don’t want people to see you do something, then it would be wisest to not do it. Or, if you must do it, do so in private.