Noted consumer technology alarmist Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), is turning his intense scrutiny back on Google and Apple, this time over the two companies’ competing plans to provide the most accurate 3D aerial maps of major metropolitan areas.
On Monday, Schumer posted on his website an open letter addressed to Google CEO Larry Page and Apple CEO Tim Cook raising his “concerns” over the level of detail that Google and Apple’s new mapping products could attain of people’s property on the ground. Specifically, Schumer cited “reports” indicating that the companies were each using “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,” to create the maps.
Though he doesn’t cite any specific products by name, Schumer notes that “in the last two weeks, Apple and Google each unveiled competing software applications that will display maps for the first time in three dimensions with an unprecedented level of detail,” apparently referencing Google’s new detailed 3D maps for the web (eventually Android and iPhone), unveiled June 6, and Apple’s new mobile mapping application for the iPhone and iPad, simply called “Maps,” that was unveiled on June 11.
Both companies boasted of the unprecedented level of detail of urban areas that the maps would be able to render.
As Schumer said in a statement on his website:
“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.”
Schumer’s letter to the tech execs also listed a number of requested “privacy and security provisions” that he wants Google and Apple to undertake when creating their 3D maps.
1) Provide notification to communities as to when you plan to conduct mapping
2) Automatically blur photos of individuals who are captured, and give property owners the right to opt-out of having the company map their homes
3) Put protocols in place with law enforcement and local municipalities to ensure that sensitive infrastructure details are blurred from published maps
Google and Apple have yet to roll-out their new mapping products to the general public (Apple’s Maps are due along with the company’s new mobile operating system update, iOS6, in the Fall, and Google’s are due in the unspecified near future), but Schumer’s concerns seem to spring from a questionably-sourced report in The Daily Mail that the companies were using such “military-grade” spy planes to create their maps.
But in an earlier report from Reuters, Google Maps engineering product manager Brian McClendon said that the company was using a fleet of airplanes owned by “private contractors,” to capture the imagery and data necessary for its new maps and that “the privacy issues were similar to all aerial imagery and that the type of 45-degree-angle pictures that the planes take have been used for a long time.” There was no mention of “military grade” technology, and in fact, at the unveiling of its new 3D maps product, Google explained that it simply converted 2D images into 3D, not capturing them originally.
In response to Schumer’s letter, a Google spokesperson provided the following statement to TPM: “We appreciate the Senator’s concerns and we look forward to meeting with him to demonstrate how the imagery used to develop our 3D models is similar to what’s already publicly available in 2D mapping products. We currently don’t blur aerial imagery because the resolution isn’t sharp enough for it to be a concern.”
Apple, which uses data from Dutch GPS company TomTom and presumably the technology it acquired along with a number of smaller boutique 3D mapping shops, including Swedish firm C3 Technologies, a spin-off off the SAAB aerospace company, which repurposed technology originally used to guide missiles.
But just because something was once a military technology doesn’t mean that it always has to be used for such purposes. Indeed, there’s a long list of military technologies that have been repurposed for mostly benign consumer products throughout the years, including the Internet itself.
Still, we doubt that will cause Schumer to reconsider his stance.