Reading license plates with Google Street View

The New York Times’ Miguel Helft has a piece this morning on the privacy implications of Google’s Street View. I found this picture of a Civic Hybrid parked near Google headquarters the other day. You can clearly read the “I (heart) 51 MPG” vanity plate.

Street view license plates

License plates are among the possible privacy concerns Helft cites:

There was the picture of a clearly identifiable man standing in front of an establishment offering lap dances and other entertainment in San Francisco. The site showed an image of a man entering a pornographic bookstore in Oakland, but his face was not visible.

Others pointed to pictures of cars whose license plates were clearly readable. One pointed to images captured inside the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, a controversial location for photography in this high-security era. On Lombard Street in San Francisco, various tourists who had come to photograph the famously curvy street were photographed themselves.

He notes that Google worked with the Safety Net Project at the National Network to End Domestic Violence to remove pictures of shelters.

I think the privacy issues here are limited. The images are devoid of most context. You don’t when or why someone was in a particular place. From the picture above, all you can tell is that someone who drives a Civic Hybrid with the plates “I (heart) 51 MPG” parked near Google.

But you could get the same information (and more) driving down the street.

As it turns out, I found the same car on flickr. That picture includes a time stamp. (It’s possible the two were taken the same day; a black Acura TL is parked in front of it, just like in the picture above.)

Yahoo! employees have been using flickr to embarrass bad parkers. This picture of a scooter parked in a carpool spot is one of my favorites.

Still, from a privacy standpoint, I prefer the fuzzier images that appear in Google’s Street View outside the Bay Area. Google did its own imaging in the Bay Area and licensed images from Immersive Media for other markets. In New York, I had a much harder time making out faces or signs. The pictures are clear enough to get a feel for an area without the high level of detail you find in San Francisco.

More on: Google, maps


About Rakesh Agrawal

Rakesh Agrawal is Senior Director of product at Amazon (Audible). Previously, he launched local and mobile products for Microsoft and AOL. He tweets at @rakeshlobster.
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4 Responses to Reading license plates with Google Street View

  1. Pingback: Google Maps: extreme close up with Street View « reDesign

  2. eszter says:

    It’s not the same spot, the Google signs are different.

    I figure people who get vanity plates understand that others might take pictures of them.

  3. vvw says:

    What is in public view is fair game. Duh!!!

  4. Pingback: Google Street View license plates « License Plate Reading « OCR Software

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