Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Droning on about surveillance

This month, Apple (Cupertino, CA, USA) and Google (Mountain View, CA, USA) unveiled competing software applications that display 3-D maps with an unprecedented level of detail. In order to create the maps, the companies are using planes equipped with high-resolution imaging equipment.

Not everyone is happy about the situation. US Senator Charles E. Schumer is one of them. When the two industry giants made their announcements, he raised the issue that a race to develop the most comprehensive and precise mapping technology could have the consequence of eroding privacy and creating security risks.

"By taking detailed pictures of individuals in intimate locations such as around a pool, or in their backyard, or even through their windows, these programs have the potential to put private images on public display. We need to hit the pause button here and figure out what is happening and how we can best protect peoples' privacy, without unduly impeding technological advancement," he said.

On his web site, the US Senator argued that such detailed photographs could provide terrorists with detailed views of sensitive utilities. On current online maps, many power lines, power sub stations, and reservoir access points are not very visible due to the reduced resolution currently used.

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.

To protect individuals' personal privacy and sensitive infrastructure sites, Schumer called on Apple and Google to fully disclose what privacy protection plans and safeguards they intend to put in place for the highly detailed and precise images they will be able to capture.

Additionally, Schumer asked the companies to provide notification to communities as to when they plan to conduct mapping, to commit to blurring out photographs of individuals who are captured in the images, to give property owners the right to opt-out of having the company map their homes, and put protocols in place with law enforcement agencies to ensure that sensitive infrastructure details are blurred from published maps.

That seems like an eminently sensible suggestion to me. After all, no-one I know would be very happy to discover that the two computer behemoths had inadvertently captured high-resolution images of them in any sort of compromising situations whatsoever.

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