Google, Apple 3D mapping raises privacy concerns

Google Inc and Apple Inc are attracting renewed scrutiny of their practices due to privacy concerns – this time for flying “military-grade spy planes” over major U.S. cities as they race to shore up their rival 3D mapping services.

Staffers for Senator Charles Schumer, a Democrat from New York, met with Google officials on Monday to discuss privacy issues related to the camera-equipped planes. They plan to meet with Apple on Friday.

The senator’s office also plans to reach out to Microsoft and other companies that may be developing similar technologies.

Schumer told Reuters in a statement on Tuesday that he wanted Apple and Google to clarify their plans and ensure “they understand the significance of our concerns over the potential publication of images captured in people’s backyards and other private settings.”

Fear of flyovers

On Monday, Schumer wrote to the two rival Silicon Valley corporations, accusing them of “an unprecedented invasion of privacy” by using filming technology capable of imaging objects as small as 4 inches.

In his letter, Schumer raised concerns over Apple’s and Google’s reported “digital mapping plans that use military-grade spy planes with enough precision to see through windows, catch detailed images of private backyard activities, and record images as small as four inches.”

3D mapping race

Google and Apple each unveiled new 3D mapping services this month at separate events. The maps let users navigate around an aerial view of a city that appears much more realistic than flat, top-down satellite-based images currently available in mapping products.

The two companies are racing to develop newfangled digital maps, a key feature as they compete to attract users to their rival smartphone offerings.

Google said in a statement it does not currently blur aerial imagery taken by the camera-equipped planes because the resolution of the images isn’t sharp enough “for it to be a concern,” noting that it takes privacy “very seriously.”

Apple said it does not display personally identifiable details such as faces or license plates, and that “we create optimized pictures taken from multiple shots and remove moving objects such as cars and people from the final image.”

By the end of the year, Google said it expects to have 3D map coverage for metropolitan areas with a combined population of 300 million people.

At an event demonstrating the new maps this month, Google said it was using a fleet of airplanes owned and operated by contractors but flying exclusively for Google.

Equipped with custom-designed cameras, the planes fly in “a very tightly controlled pattern” over metropolitan areas, taking pictures from 45-degree angles, Google executives explained. The photographs are then used to build 3D computer-generated models of the buildings and cityscapes.

Google has used planes to collect aerial photos in the past, such as following the 2010 San Bruno, California, gas-line explosion. But the latest effort marks the company’s most significant use of the planes in a systematic manner to build a standard feature in one of its products.

Google has faced scrutiny over mapping services in the past, such as with the camera-equipped “Street View” cars that crisscross the globe taking panoramic pictures of streets for its popular mapping service.

In 2010, Google acknowledged that the so-called Street View cars had inadvertently collected emails, passwords and other personal data from home wireless networks. Collecting the WiFi data was unrelated to the Google Maps project; it was done so that Google could collect data on WiFi hot spots that can be used to provide separate location-based services.

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Google, Apple 3D mapping raises privacy concerns