Is Google Street View Legal?

Some critics of Google Street View claim that it's an invasion of privacy, and those claims recently gained steam when courts ruled against the convenient mapping service. But it was a small victory for the owners of the private property that Google snapped a shot of and posted online – they only won $1 in the lawsuit.

In general, when it comes to determining the legality of Street View, the answer is "it depends."

Aaron and Christine Boring claimed that a Google Street View car took photos of their home in Franklin Park, a Pittsburgh suburb, despite the "private property" signs on their driveway. They sued Google for $25,000, demanding that the photos of their house be taken off of Google’s ever-expanding online grid of roadside photography.

A Pennsylvania district court judge ruled in their favor, finding that the Google Street View car had trespassed on the couple's private driveway in order to photograph the house. In 2009, residents in California's Humboldt County successfully got Google to remove photos of their homes from the site after they complained that Google Street View cars obtained the images by disregarding private property signs and driving up private roads.

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In 2008, North Oaks, a small, private community near St Paul, MN, similarly requested that Google Street View strike their photos of the area from their records or be cited for trespassing. Google took down the photos, with only an overhead satellite view currently shown of the town's streets.

The legality of taking photos of private homes and posting them online –where anyone can see them and zoom in to view, for example, people's faces and cars' license plates — seems to vary case by case, as several previous lawsuits against Google Street View had been dismissed.

Google argues that the feature, which premiered in 2007, is not violating any privacy laws and that many of the images that people request to be taken down can be found online on other sites anyway. For example, a photo of the Boring's home can be found on the Allegheny County's Office of Property Assessments.

"Today's satellite-image technology means that...complete privacy does not exist," Google said in 2009 in response to the Borings' complaint.

But Google Street View has recently had other legal issues regarding privacy invasion. On Oct. 22, 2010, Google admitted that their Street View data-collecting cars used to photograph streets had also been recording residents’ private information in the process, getting unencrypted Wi-Fi data including SSID information (Wi-Fi network name) and MAC addresses (a Wi-Fi router’s unique number).

Google stated that this was done unintentionally and promised to delete the sensitive data as soon as possible.

Remy Melina is a staff writer for Life's Little Mysteries, a sister site to LiveScience.

Follow Remy Melina on Twitter @RemyMelina

Remy Melina was a staff writer for Live Science from 2010 to 2012. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Communication from Hofstra University where she graduated with honors.