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Google's Street View Survives Court Test

A federal court has tossed a lawsuit that claimed Google's Street View mapping service invaded a couple's privacy.

Aaron and Christine Boring of Pittsburgh filed a five-count complaint against Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) last April claiming that the "street view" feature of Google's mapping service, which displayed their home on a private road, violated their privacy. They sought compensatory and punitive damages in the lawsuit.

"The Borings have not alleged facts sufficient to establish that they suffered any damages caused by the alleged trespass. They do not describe damage to or interference with their possessory rights," wrote District Court Judge Amy Reynolds Hay, who presides over the Western District of Pennsylvania,

"Instead, they claim, without factual support, that mental suffering and a diminution in property value were caused by Google's publication of a map containing images of their home."

The couple's lawyer, Dennis Moskal of Zegarelli Technology & Entrepreneurial Ventures Law Group, said he was still reviewing the ruling. "We have not yet decided what steps to take at this time," he told InternetNews.com.

Google said it was pleased with the decision.

"Google respects individual privacy. We blur identifiable faces and license plates in Street View and offer easy-to-use removal tools so users can decide for themselves whether or not they want a given image to appear in Street View. It is unfortunate the parties involved decided to pursue litigation instead of making use of these tools," a spokesperson told InternetNews.com.

The ruling comes amid rising concerns over online privacy and debate about who has control over online data. Social networking leader Facebook made an abrupt change to its terms of service this week after users protested changes that gave Facebook a perpetual content license over users' data after their account is deactivated.

This isn't likely to be the last we hear about privacy and Google's use of data. The search giant is well aware that its use of search data is under scrutiny. In September 2008 Google announced it would reduce the retention period of search data from 18 months to nine months.

The Google Street View legal battle began when the Borings, who live on a private road outside of Pittsburgh, saw their home on Google's Street View feature. Street View, which Google debuted in 2007, lets users navigate through street level images collected by drivers with digital panoramic cameras.

The Borings contend that since they live on a private road, clearly marked as private and also a “No Trespassing” sign, a Google videographer did not have authorization to film their home location.

"This is a big deal because there are no provisions in place or internal controls within Google to prevent filming of street views of such private locations," said Moskal.

Google provides users a removal mechanism on each Street View image via a 'report a concern' link in the bottom left of the image window. Users then complete a request form to have an image removed.

"We make it easy for users to ask to have photographs of themselves, their children, their cars or their houses completely removed from the product, even where the images have already been blurred," states Google in its information page about the service.

But Moskal told InternetNews.com the removal feature is not sufficient.

"The measures, which are after the fact, are less than satisfactory," said Moskal. "There may be people who aren't even aware their private home is on a map like this, or who don't have Internet access to remove the image," he said.

According to Moskal the Borings did not remove the image of their home after learning about it, or contact Google directly about the issue before filing the lawsuit. Google did remove the image at a later point, said Moskal.

"The Plaintiffs’ failure to take readily available steps to protect their own privacy and mitigate their alleged pain suggests to the Court that the intrusion and their suffering were less severe than they contend," wrote the judge.