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Are Google and Apple's New 3-D Aerial Maps a Privacy Invasion?


"The next generation of maps is taking us over the garden fence."

Just as Google Street View has long raised concerns about potentially invading personal privacy, the company's new initiative sending planes into the sky to take 3-D aerial photos is no different.

Last week, Google announced it had commissioned planes to photograph swaths of major cities to conjure more realistic three-dimensional views of metropolitan landscapes in the Google Earth version of its maps. The photos taken by the planes are automatically converted into 3-D replicas using technology that Google developed for the project.

San Francisco will be one of the first cities to feature the more vivid 3-D imagery. Google didn't identify other cities on its 3-D list, but said the improvements will span communities with a combined population of about 300 million.

Google Earth's product manager Peter Birch said they are "trying to create the illusion that you are flying over the city, almost as if you are in your own personal helicopter."

Apple, which expected to end its five-year partnership with Google's mobile maps this week according to recent reports in The Wall Street Journal and the technology blog 9to5Mac, is expected to unveil its own similar service. Apple is hosting a web developers conference today where such technology could be announced.

While Google and Apple see these offerings as the next generation in mapping systems available to mobile devices, some see it as an opportunity to invade personal privacy.

The Daily Mail compares the technology on Apple's planes to that used against terrorists in Afghanistan with the ability to "potentially see into homes through skylights and windows." It reports Nick Pickles for the U.K.'s Big Brother Watch saying privacy safeguards are being ignored in the companies' "race to the bottom":

"The next generation of maps is taking us over the garden fence," he warned. "You won’t be able to sunbathe in your garden without worrying about an Apple or Google plane buzzing overhead taking pictures."

He said householders should be asked for their consent before images of their homes go online.

Amie Stepanovich, of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in America, said she believed Apple and Google would be forced to blur out homes in the same way Street View pixellates faces.

She said: "With satellite images, privacy is built in because you can’t zoom down into a garden. Homeowners need to be asked to opt in to show their property in high definition – otherwise it should be blurred out."

Google released this video last week to accompany its announcement of the project:

Google has said this new "fly-over" capability will be available within a few weeks.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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