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Canada vs. Google

Girls sunbathing captured by Street View

The federal privacy commissioner writes to Immersive Media, the company that takes photos for Google’s new mapping and traffic application, Street View:

The Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents (PIPEDA) Act is Canada’s private sector privacy law, which came fully into effect on January 1, 2004. Pursuant to PIPEDA, businesses that wish to collect, use or disclose personal information about people generally require individuals’ consent, and they may only use or disclose that information for the purpose for which individuals gave consent. Even with consent, businesses are required to limit the collection, use and disclosure of personal information to purposes that a reasonable person would consider appropriate under the circumstances. Finally, individuals have a right to see the personal information that businesses hold about them, and to correct any inaccuracies.

...Our Office considers images of individuals that are sufficiently clear to allow an individual to be identified to be personal information within the meaning of PIPEDA. The images contained in your GeoImmersive Database appear to have been captured largely without the consent and knowledge of the individuals who appear in the images. Your company is now making the images commercially available, presumably to anyone who wishes to enter into a licensing agreement. This would appear to run counter to the basic requirements of knowledge, consent, and limited collection, use and disclosure as set out in PIPEDA.

Thank goodness our federal officials are there to protect us from companies that might spend millions of dollars developing cool and useful free services for us. But doesn’t this interpretation of PIPEDA appear to outlaw ordinary freelance photography in public places? Scrutiny of the statute reveals the loophole; the privacy provisions don’t apply to

any organization in respect of personal information that the organization collects, uses or discloses for journalistic, artistic or literary purposes and does not collect, use or disclose for any other purpose.

So what’s the most credible definition of Street View that Google and Immersive Media can provide when they write back in defence of their right to take pictures from a moving car? Should they argue that it’s a journalistic enterprise? Or a work of art?


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Comments (17)

Garth Wood:

"So what’s the most credible definition of Street View that Google and Immersive Media can provide when they write back in defence of their right to take pictures from a moving car?  Should they argue that it’s a journalistic enterprise?  Or a work of art?"

"Or"?  D00d, it's the genius of the 'and,' rather than the tyranny of the 'or.'

What's amusing about this latest attempt to limit picture-taking in public places is that this is occurring at precisely the same time that technology makes it easier than ever to take completely clandestine pictures of people, regardless of venue.

Ultimately, the privacy rules will be seen to be toothless, as more and more people with cameras, cellphones and God-knows-what-else continue to snap (and post to the 'Net) innumerable photos.  In many ways, the deluge has already arrived.  Trust our clueless bureaucrat class to want to hold back the flood via legislative fiat.

Well it's not the bureaucrats who are responsible for PIPEDA, believe me. This stuff is the work of a public that's always baying to have its technology cake and to eat pre-technological privacy too.

That said, Google can argue that it's a literary work, a work of art, and a journalistic enterprise, but it would likely lose all of them. And the bureaucrat here is right; this does (at least on its face) violate PIPEDA. Privacy advocates like the EFF in the U.S. have already been making public complaints; it would only be a matter of time before these were relayed to the privacy commissioner (in fact I strongly suspect that this letter was initiated by complaints from privacy advocates).

The easiest thing for Google to do is to try to fix the problem technologically, by using a technologically-implemented face-blurring system.

Check out this list of the "alleged" Google Street View privacy invasions already discovered in the US:


There is even a Google Street View capture of a woman going in for an HIV test!

Well it's not the bureaucrats who are responsible for PIPEDA, believe me. This stuff is the work of a public that's always baying to have its technology cake and to eat pre-technological privacy too.

It could be argued by some crafty lawyer that the wording of the statute is indirectly the work of the sheeple, insofar as their elected representatives passed it, but photographs aren't explicitly included in PIPEDA as "personal information." Indeed, nothing is. The term was left to be defined by the custodians of the act, one case at a time. One might even call them bureaucrats.

Fortunately a face-blurring system is probably relatively easy to implement in an age when $200 digital cameras can recognize smiles in realtime. But if Google wanted to go for the "journalism" exception as a delaying tactic they could always try to make the case that the information in Street View is of the same general nature as that conveyed in a radio traffic report, and happens to identify individuals only as a side-effect, like freelance news photos.

There is even a Google Street View capture of a woman going in for an HIV test!

If Street View could interpret intentions like this, it really would be kind of scary. But it takes a human brain to jump to unwarranted conclusions.


Or Google can tell Canada to go stuff itself and just not have Canadian street-level data.

And as you say, Colby, I see no reason to believe that a photograph of someone on the street is "personal information" under PIPEDA; given that it has no name or other information attached to it, I'm not sure how it could reasonably be considered so.

That someone "could recognise the face" is irrelevant; that's equally true of being out in public areas at any time, and that's not "personal information".

One hopes they have the balls to stand up to "this office"'s interpretation and see it into court.

(And re Tybalt's comment, what's EFF complaining about?

One's right to privacy to... not be seen in a public place, from another public place, in plain view of all passers-by?

The hell is wrong with them?)


As a fan of fine oxymorons, "privacy in public" is one of my favourites.

Agreed, ebt. My reasonable expectation of privacy, and my reasonable expectation of not being identified, while walking down a public sidewalk is not close to zero... it is zero.

When you're the federal Hammer Commissioner, everything looks like a nail.

George Skinner:

There's never been any privacy in public - what are people thinking?

This bodes poorly for those of us who like to spend idle summer afternoons on Whyte Ave taking pictures of attractive women.


"When you're the federal Hammer Commissioner, everything looks like a nail."

Mind if I use that? With attribution, of course.


"Hammer Commissioner"

made my week...


I agree with the Privacy Commish, but notwithstanding my view, I note no-one has pointed out the unique complications Google would face in any event, given Canadian federalism, or more precisely, the Quebec-factor:

"Little known fact about life in Quebec: if you don't have official permission from the people who appear in your photos, they can sue you for making such images public. And that applies even if you were to e-mail the picture to a few friends, or put it on a little-frequented Web site."


This is fine by me, as a Quebecker concerned about privacy, a position I would have expected to share with a self-described libertarian, but I guess just goes to prove Colby Cosh really is a, horrors!, LIBERAL, in conservatives' worst American sense...

Anyway, having one jurisdiction with such a law and with great influence on the workings of the Federal Government, as befits it, for all sorts of reasons, makes it highly unlikely the Privacy Commissioner is going to be alone on this, thankfully. Y'all may hope for a successful exemption on artistic or journalistic but I don't think c'est comme ça que le biscuit crumblera.

You would expect a libertarian to support essentially outlawing photography in public places?


I know wikipedia isn't perfect but I thought its simple definition, "(L)libertarianism is a political philosophy maintaining that all persons are the absolute owners of their own lives, and should be free to do whatever they wish with their persons or property, provided they allow others the same liberty", summed it up rather well.

I guess I was naive enough to think that anyone who called himself a classic liberal would claim your rights end where mine begin or, to put it diferently:

"Libertarians generally view constraints imposed by the state on persons or their property (if applicable), BEYOND THE NEED TO PENALIZE INFRINGEMENT OF ONE'S RIGHTS BY ANOTHER, as a violation of liberty."

Hence the righteousness of the Quebec judgement. No-one should be posting pictures of me without my consent.

It's a very good summary, but your image is neither your person nor your property. The philosophical absurdities in such a doctrine should not only be obvious (property rights in photons??), but pretty decisive no matter what one's political philosophy.


Regina (QC) & I beg to differ.


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