Legislating Mobile Mapping

RED ALERT for mobile mapping…

In my last article, I mentioned a document issued by the Belgian Privacy Commission. This document outlines recommendations pertaining to planning and executing mobile mapping data collection. Here’s the link in case you missed it:

The scope of these recommendations includes mandatory registration of mobile mapping service providers, public notice of activities, a Privacy Impact Assessment, and blurring of faces and license plates. If these recommendations are codified into law, they could have severe operational and financial repercussions for anyone involved in the business of providing mobile mapping services.

This document originates from Belgium, but you can bet there are legislators here in the US and other nations that are thinking along the same lines. Everyone who is involved in mobile mapping needs to read this document. Here are a few of the most disturbing items:

  • "The scope of the Recommendation covers not only applications such as Google Street View, but also other types of Mobile Mapping such as mapping by public authorities (my emphasis added), mapping for tourism, real estate applications and GPS navigation mapping."

My comments: Will a Department of Transportation or a city government that wishes to use mobile mapping data to manage assets and operations be required to conform to such legislation?

  • "…the Belgian DPA takes the position that photos usually constitute personal data, and that in some cases, Mobile Mapping may involve the processing of sensitive data (e.g., a picture of an individual near a doctors office or entering a church)."

My comments: Disagree. Photos taken from a public right-of-way do NOT usually constitute personal data. Read on for further comments on this topic. You need to be a real extremist to believe the examples of sensitive data cited could threaten your privacy.

  • "Individuals affected by Mobile Mapping must be properly informed about that type of processing of their personal data. Given the specific nature of this type of service, the Belgian DPA recognizes that a general notice via a website or in the press should be sufficient."

My comments: Number 1: based on the premise that data acquired from the public right- of-way is "personal data". Number 2: Next stage of recommendations will be written notices sent by Registered Mail, Return Receipt Requested. Let’s make darn sure everyone is notified.

Coming from a land planning background, the topic of privacy vs. public view intrigues me. Many local ordinances that have been in place for years that regulate what can be visible on private property from a public right-of-way. For example, some municipalities require screening or landscape buffers for commercial parking lots. Screening of automotive junkyards is another example. The objective of these ordinances is to maintain aesthetic views for users of the public right-of-way, improve land values and enhance the quality of life for citizens. But note that the burden of compliance is placed on the property owner, not the user of the right-of-way.

Common sense tells us that what IS openly visible from a public right-of-way should be public knowledge. If a person wants to protect their privacy, they need to take appropriate measures to secure it. How then can the burden of guaranteeing privacy be placed on the observer rather than the observed?

After doing some internet research, there seems to be more of an issue with recording or documenting a presence or setting rather than merely observing. Permits for still photography may be required at National Parks, related US Government land agencies and the State of California Public Lands. A permit should be obtained for any photography that is done for commercial or "for resale" purposes. If the mobile mapping service provider is collecting data for a paying customer in such an area, would it not be considered a commercial purpose?

A second issue involved is publishing a person’s presence. Let’s say a mobile mapping system drives by and captures us in an awkward position or inappropriate gesture. Would we want this information about ourselves plastered all over the Internet? Most likely – no. Simple solution – watch what we do in public.

I think we can all agree that national security is clearly an exception. Why give terrorists an easy map and graphic details of military installations and infrastructure targets (power generation plants, water treatment plants, etc.)? It is in our best interest to protect these types of installations by restricting photography.

Is it perception or reality? I contend that invasion of privacy by mobile mapping systems is a perceived "what if?" issue rather than a real issue. In the past two years, I have probably studied and analyzed several dozen terabytes of mobile mapping images and LiDAR captured in a wide range of environments and countries. I don’t recall observing anyone that I recognized, anyone performing a private action, or a license plate of significant interest. Maybe it’s a matter of motive, not observance.

The issue of mobile mapping privacy is a very volatile subject. Mobile mapping is so new that its operations and activities have yet to be thoroughly scrutinized by legislators.

So what do we do, those of us who derive our income from mobile mapping? Ignore it and hope it goes away, doesn’t happen in our country, state, or local jurisdiction? Or take a proactive stance by monitoring, commenting on, and confronting proposed legislation?

I opt for the second course of action.