Privacy in GIS Issues

Caitlin Dempsey


The increase usage of GIS and associated geospatial technologies has brought with it a rise in public concern over privacy. The proliferation of easily accessible public geographic information via the web is one of the reasons.  The availability of not only aerial and satellite imagery but also street level imagery has also raised questions about the balance between the public’s righto access information versus the individual person’s right to privacy.  A.F. Westin in Privacy and Freedom (1967) defined privacy as “the claim of individuals … to determine for themselves when, how, and to what extent information about them is communicated to others.”

Mike Elgan argues that the use of satellite imagery by local governments to monitor compliance is a violation of the 4th-Ammendment protection against unreasonable searches.  As part of his opinion piece, Elgan cites the example of the town of Riverhead on Long Island which used Google Earth to search all back yards in the town for swimming pool transgressions.  See: Big Brother is searching you – Computer World.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the appeal of Juan Pineda-Moreno who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to grow marijuana.  Part of the evidence against Pineda-Morena was GPS data that tracked the movements of his car and showed he visited several remote areas where marijuana was being grown.  Drug Enforcement Administration agents attached the GPS unit to Pineda-Moreno’s car that was sitting in the driveway of his home.  Pineda-Moreno had appealed the conviction, claiming the GPS tracking was a violation of a person’s reasonable expectation of privacy. Read more: Court allows agents to secretly put GPS trackers on cars –

Beware of geotags in your photos; privacy and security can unwittingly be comprised by posting geotagged photos online.

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“I’d say very few people know about geotag capabilities,” said Peter Eckersley, a staff technologist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco, “and consent is sort of a slippery slope when the only way you can turn off the function on your smartphone is through an invisible menu that no one really knows about.”

Read more: Web Photos That Reveal Secrets, Like Where You Live – NY Times (via The Map Room)

Google Maps and Privacy

A couple living on a private road in Pittsburgh is sued Google for invasion of privacy in April of 2008. According to a post on the Smoking Gun, Aaron and Christine Boring accuse Google of an “intentional and/or grossly reckless invasion” of their seclusion and privacy since they live on a street that is “clearly marked with a ‘Private Road’ sign”. For their “trauma”, the couple is seeking $25,000 in damages and a court order to remove and destroy the imagery from the Internet. What is noted of interest by the Smoking Gun is that not only are pictures of the house available on Google Map but also on the Allegheny County’s Office of Property Assessments which apparently is not part of the lawsuit. This seems to be the first attempt to sue Google over alleged invasion of privacy although many pundits have previously asserted that pictures taken in public are legal.  The crux of the lawsuit will apparently center around the argument that private roads are not part of public space. lists 51items you can’t see on Google Maps because they are blurred out.  Reasons for the digital erasure vary from sensitive government sites to privacy lawsuits.  The list is organized into categories containg government sites, sites removed for political reasons or due to litigation, nuclear sites and college and reasearch labs.  Based on some of the comments, the list’s accuracy is questionable with some of the commenters remarking that sites on the list are actually accessible on Google Maps. Read: Blurred Out: 51 Things You Aren’t Allowed to See on Google Maps

Google’s launch of their street level imagery for select cities in the United States in May of 2007 brought up many questions of privacy but, for the most part, the availability of publicy taken photography is legal. The same isn’t true for Canada and now Canadian officials have sent an enquiry to Google to determine if the Street View imagery would be legal if launched for Canadian cities. C|Net took a look at the privacy and legals issues as first raised in an article in The Canadian Press.

More GIS and Privacy Resources

Although dated, this web page presents some interesting citations of legal arguments relating privacy issues, GIS and surverying.

GIS and Privacy
Post from Atanas Entchev of the Entchev Blog with links to some of his essays on GIS and Privacy.

Protecting Personal Privacy in Using Geographic Information Systems
Journal article originally published in the September 1994 issue of Photogrammetric Engineering and Remote Sensing.  This article reviews some of the practices of various government agencies and industries to protect personal information.

Spatial confidentiality and GIS: re-engineering mortality locations from published maps about Hurricane Katrina
Article published in the October 2006 issue of the International Journal of Health Geographics and looks at the issue of reverse engineering point location data to locate actual residents.

Technologies of Identification: Geospatial Systems and Locational Privacy
Article by Lorraine Kisselburgh looks at the issue of keeping individual location information private in the age of GPS and electronic trails through the use of credit, debit and other tracking methods.

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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.