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This is the image of my house on Google Maps:

enter image description here

(not really. Just to make a point).

I gave no permission to Google to publish a satellite image of my back garden (including swimming pool, children's playgrounds, etc) for all to see. And I guess probably non of you did either. And yet, there it is.

Why Google has the right to do so? Under what authority is such trespassing on privacy legal? More over, how can Google do this for every country of the world? Below is the apartment building where a former colleague lives, in North Korea:

enter image description here

Did the North Korean government authorise Google to publish these images? Surely not. Google maps' Terms of Service does include a note for certain countries, but not for all of them. And the notes make no reference to people authorising states to use those images.

Is Google Maps legal?

  • United States, searches can cover any area in "plain view" without warrant. So the view of houses from the street or a back yard from a satellight or arial picture are perfectly legal as they are in public space and you have taken no steps to obstruct these views (unlike your house, which has a roof and walls blocking view. Google does not have a legal pressence in North Korea, so while North Korea can yell about it violating their laws, they can't enforce their laws on google. – hszmv Jan 21 at 14:20
  • @hszmv So is Google violating NK laws but not US laws? – abracadabra Jan 21 at 16:39
  • I don't know, I don't have knowledge on North Korean privacy laws. North Korea does not have jurisidiction to enforce any punative damages on Google because Google does not legally exist as a cooperation in North Korea. They can certainly have a judge declare Google is very naughty and owes $1 million bajillion dollars, but they have no power to actually secure that wealth from Google from both a jurisdiction and practical standpoint. "It's Blood from the Stone" as far as the U.S. is concerned. – hszmv Jan 21 at 17:01
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Google maps (Street View, Google Earth) are all legal, although perhaps they are illegal in North Korea (along with many other things). Permission would be required for them to enter your house and take pictures, but if it can be seen publically, it is legal unless there is a specific law forbidding taking pictures. It is possible that there are legal restrictions on the Street View method of driving around with a camera in some countries, but Earth view shots are obtained by satellite, which is out of the jurisdiction of the objecting country. The Street View gap for Belarus may be due to a legal restriction, or it could just be Google-strategic (there seems to be no public explanation). There have been numerous "legal encounters" involving Street View and the authorities, in the realm of privacy concerns: there is no general rule.

Google has the right to make and distribute these photos because there is no (enforceable) law against doing so, unless there is.

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  • "Earth view shots are obtained by satellite, which is out of the jurisdiction of the objecting country" is it? Why can then a government (e.g. US) ask Google to remove (or dim) certain "national security" areas? – abracadabra Jan 20 at 20:16
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    @abracadabra because they, unlike you, have the power to make laws and force Google to obey them. – Dale M Jan 20 at 20:20
  • @DaleM Are you saying that the US government actually has no right yet but it is warning Google it can give itself such right if it want so? – abracadabra Jan 20 at 20:21
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    @abracadabra no, there were laws on the books forbidding photographs of certain government installations before Google started mapping. As a US company based in the US, Google is subject to US law. – Dale M Jan 20 at 20:23
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    If the US passed a law allowing individuals to refuse permission, Google would have to comply in the US. But they haven’t. Other countries can too. For many years there was no street view in Austria because there was a law against it. That law has been repealed. – Dale M Jan 20 at 20:27
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Everything which is not forbidden is allowed

There is a fundamental legal principle that states that there is an essential freedom for anyone to do everything that's not explicitly forbidden by some law.

You state that "I gave no permission to Google to publish a satellite image of my back garden (including swimming pool, children's playgrounds, etc) for all to see." - however, unless there exists a specific statute that forbids people to record and publish satelite images of your back garden, or requires explicit permission to do that, they don't need your permission.

Most countries have specific laws that prohibit random people to come in your house without your permission to make some photographs. Most countries do not have laws that prohibit photographing (and publishing the photographs) of building exteriors visible from outside, public airspace and space, so people are free to do that.

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  • Does that mean Google has no requirement to take down the picture of my backyard if I ask for it? Why however can the US government do that? – abracadabra Jan 20 at 20:17
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    "Does that mean Google has no requirement to take down the picture of my backyard if I ask for it?" Yes. " Why however can the US government do that?" Because as sovereign it gets to write the rules that it applies to itself. – ohwilleke Jan 20 at 22:22
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One of the leading cases under U.S. law is Florida v. Riley, 488 U.S. 445 (1989), in which the United States Supreme Court held that police officials do not need a warrant to observe an individual's property from public airspace. It is not obvious that a satellite photo is distinguishable from Florida v. Riley.

Incidentally, U.S. law to which Google maps is subject, does prohibit release of certain photographs of facilities kept secret for national defense purposes, so if the same photo were taken of a U.S. military base, the U.S. government could insist that it be taken down.

A North Korean law objecting to the image is one Google can safely ignore (and it probably is illegal under North Korean law). But, if, for example, the E.U. threatened legal action against Google for violating E.U. privacy laws with satellite images of places in its territory, Google would probably have to comply. To my knowledge, there are no such laws in the E.U.

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    Austria did forbid street view for many years but has since given permission (presumably with conditions). – Dale M Jan 20 at 20:19
  • Right, but one thing is police officials and another thing entirely different is a private company releasing a photo of my backyard online. – abracadabra Jan 20 at 20:19
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    @abracadabra are you expecting airplane passengers to also not look down? – Moo Jan 20 at 20:52
  • @Moo Obviously not. But the differences are huge. Someone might want to target me to sell swimming pool products, or a burglar might know exactly where my cars are parked or how to escape from my garden. – abracadabra Jan 20 at 20:55
  • @abracadabra The rights of police officers are a function of a person's general right to an expectation of privacy with respect to the general public. – ohwilleke Jan 20 at 22:24

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