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Public streets, our privacy and Palo Alto’s color

Original post made by Diana Diamond, Palo Alto Online blogger, on Jun 7, 2007

Imagine being beaten by Google.

That could be the way Artist Sam Yates feels now that Google has just released its Street View, which shows computerized pictures of practically all the homes in Palo Alto (Web Link, then click on Street View).

People in China or France or Nebraska can now put in your (or my) address in the Street View site, and see what our homes look like. Some Palo Altans declare our privacy has been invaded (more about that below).

Yates, as you will recall, was given $65,000 by Palo Alto’s Public Arts Commission and Hewlett-Packard to determine “The Color of Palo Alto.” To do so, he went on his red scooter all around town for a couple of years taking photos of each home in Palo Alto. The colors will be digitally mixed and calculated to determine the official Palo Alto color. I speculate it will be a muddy brown.

One of the side benefits of his project, we were told, was that he would turn over his digital photos to our police department so they would be able to see our houses on a computer screen, before first responding to an emergency.

The artist, who now lives in southern California, promised the commission he will reveal the color by September 2007 and subsequently give his photos to the police department. The photos also will displayed on the City Hall facade.

Now Google has trumped all of Yates picture-taking of some 18,000 or so properties in the city. Google drove around Palo Alto and took their photos of our houses and have them up on their web site.

In the meantime, a number of residents are complaining their privacy has been invaded by Google because a) they don’t like a photo of their home on the web, b) some photos show their cars with their license plate numbers and they are worried about that, and c) having a house on a computer screen worldwide is different from a passerby walking down the street and seeing your house.

Google has said it’s on firm legal footing, because a public street is just that, and on a public street there is no guarantee of privacy.

Interestingly, I did not hear the same public outcry about privacy invasion when Yates said he was going to take digital pictures of houses in Palo Alto. The Public Arts Commission loved the idea, as did many at City Hall, including the police department.

I understand the public street is a public street argument, although there’s part of me that objects to a further invasion of privacy. For example, I can’t say I like having hidden cameras in Palo Alto at traffic lights, in public garages or in stores and other public places, although I understand why they are there. But we used to do just fine without them.

Welcome to our less private digital future.

Comments (22)

Like this comment
Posted by Mapper99
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Jun 7, 2007 at 2:00 pm

This is getting interesting. Check out this huge list of privacy invasions here:

Web Link

Like this comment
Posted by Ansel
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jun 7, 2007 at 2:02 pm

Privacy is a luxury that we can no longer afford. Anonymity is the bane of modern urban existance - very little that is good comes from anonymity, except the ability to post wantonly in this forum.

Viva la camera!!

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 7, 2007 at 5:38 pm

Having my home per se on the web doesn't matter too much to me although I don't like it particularly. However, I think there are bigger issues here. I took a look at my local elementary school and the amount of detail there is incredible. I am definitely sure that there is an element that could do a lot with that information. Also, I believe the foiled plot to blow up JFK airport was assisted by the fact that the perpetrators were using google pictures from the web of all the fueling facilities, etc. It sounds to me that this sort of information is abling and abetting criminals so that they don't even have to leave home to get their reckies.

Privacy is one thing, but security of our schools and airports is secondly much more serious.

Like this comment
Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 8, 2007 at 6:30 am

They caught that carjack killer because of surveilance cameras. Privacy in public is an oxymoron. Imagine if Palo Alto had surveilance cameras at all major intersections, how much easier the investigation of crimes would be.

Like this comment
Posted by Ansel
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jun 8, 2007 at 12:11 pm

Walter is correct; security is enabled by surveillance. Security cameras give the potential victims of crime two things: 1) a deterrent edge and 2) the ability to increase odds that perpetrators will be caught.

Like this comment
Posted by Bystander
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 8, 2007 at 12:15 pm

CCTV is responsible in other countries for the success of plenty of police work. For example, the 7/7 bombers in London were traced by CCTV and their pictures were available very quickly. From that it was relatively easy to police out who they were.

There is a difference though of cctv for surveillance and making everything available to all which can only help terrorism rather than security.

Like this comment
Posted by Matt Raschke
a resident of Santa Rita (Los Altos)
on Jun 8, 2007 at 12:28 pm

You can already watch live footage from the County Traffic cameras wherever there is a signal on a County Road (e.g. Oregon/Page Mill and Foothill Expressway). It is pretty neat. Here is a link:

Web Link

Like this comment
Posted by Jerry
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jun 8, 2007 at 1:07 pm

Over 20 years ago, I was visiting a colleague at another local high tech firm. He asked me if wanted to see something cool, and I said yes. I was asked to walk through one of three possible doors (my choice), all of which had an exactly identical room, then exit through a door at the other side of the room. No problem. Ten minutes after I had left the room of my choice, my colleague told me which room I had chosen. I suspected a hidden camera, but that wasn't the answer. He showed me a electron backscatter profile of the dandruff I shed with every step. I was impressed.

At that point, it occurred to me that criminals are about to become an extinct species. I was a bit premature in my opinion, but I still feel that way. Trace evidence is incredibly powerful. Combine that with CCTV, electronic intercepts, etc. and the criminal will need to be a near genius to get away with crime. In fact, if I was to try to come up with a perfect crime, I'm not sure I could figure it out.

This big brother stuff works. Yes, it bothers me somewhat, but I like to see criminals caught. Since I am not a criminal, I have not detected any decrease in my personal liberties. If I do, in the future, I will probably change my mind.

Like this comment
Posted by mike
a resident of College Terrace
on Jun 8, 2007 at 10:10 pm

I basically agree with what Diana wrote about privacy concerns. However we are living in a different world, and our earlier one was simpler and perhaps more naive - and quite different from today's.

However, one thing she brought up was the waste (my word) of the City's $65,000 for Sam Yates to come up with the "Palo Alto Color". We taxpayers could have saved this money by buying a complete choice of colors at the local paint store, mixing them and coming up with the color. I'll bet, along with Diana, at best it would be a muddy brown - and determined for well under $1000.

Why the police would want pictures of house fronts when most breakins occur at the side or rear is puzzling. I suspect it was thrown in as a justification for the money spent.

This is another example of our Council spending money as if we had a limitless amount of funds for any frivolous idea.

Like this comment
Posted by A resident
a resident of another community
on Jun 9, 2007 at 6:42 am

Nearly everywhere you go in Britain you are watched by a camera, sometimes more than one. There are many thousands of cameras everywhere

Unlike the U.S. everyone is in favor of these cameras because they trust their authorities, i.e. Police, Firefighters even MI5. The attitude is if you're a law abiding citizen you have nothing to worry about because the cameras are there to catch the bad guys.

Camera surveylance as a tool has been hugely successful in catching the bad guys, and in some locations has greatly reduced crime.

I'm not advocating it for the U.S.; too many violations of our civil liberties, it won't fly.

Like this comment
Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 9, 2007 at 11:13 am

Here we go again. A, which of your civil liberties has been violated?
In Great Britain there are no civil liberties.

Like this comment
Posted by Ex Pat
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 9, 2007 at 1:08 pm

Now talking about civil liberties. In Britain we have a lot of cctv and no one seems to mind. We also do not have laws that make us carry driving licences around with us or having to show them. We also have no equivalent of the social security number which would be needed for everything from opening bank accounts, etc. During WWII when National Identity cards with numbers were issued the Government felt that this would be a start of all carrying ids, but the population, very wary of this, all burnt their cards at the end of the war as a celebration.

We do not like Government watching us. We would not like to have one number that is used for everything from birth to grave. The only number we have is literally for national insurance (welfare, pensions, etc.). We Brits like our civil liberties. We are also not afraid of being watched by the good guys. We do not want to be watched by the terrorists though and we had plenty of that with the IRA taking pot shots whenever.

Like this comment
Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 11, 2007 at 6:58 pm

Tell us how great your NHS is when they reject you for a procedure because you led a disolute life. And again I await notice of civil liberty violations.

Like this comment
Posted by Ex Pat
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 11, 2007 at 7:41 pm

Never said the NHS didn't have any faults, just that our NHS numbers don't have anything to do with taxes, or bank accounts, or any thing else that an American social security number is used for.

The NHS had problems from day one and their problems are escalating.
The problems to do with rejecting you for a procedure are more in line with the numbers of people waiting for the same procedure and the amount of room available to those who wait. It is then that they have to choose who to elect rather than who to reject. Believe me, it is a big problem. Anyone wise is in BUPA and goes private.

Like this comment
Posted by Joanna
a resident of Green Acres
on Jun 12, 2007 at 9:53 am

Does anyone here know about DMV issues? I'm wondering what a person can do with license plates they find on the web. I'm sure police can find the owner, but what about the regular joe?

Like this comment
Posted by R Wray
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jun 12, 2007 at 4:10 pm

I'm no expert, but I don't think you can easily find on the web who the plates are registered to. (You might be able, however, to convince your insurance agent to find out for you.)

From the plate number you can get the smog information--where and when the vehicle was tested and whether it passed or failed. The vehicle identification number (VIN) is also given.

It may cost for the report (about $20), but with the VIN you can get various data that a potential used-car purchaser might want to know such as collisions, fleet/rental registration and various odometer readings at "events".

I find it interesting that many people seem very concerned about the Google images. They must live in constant fear.

Like this comment
Posted by eric
a resident of Mountain View
on Jun 12, 2007 at 4:53 pm

But, Walt, "The streets and sidewalks were originally under private ownership but were conveyed to the city for an explicit purpose, to allow shoppers and workers to go to and from their business. Obviously you can not erect a tent in the middle of the street because that would be contrary to the grant."

So, you DO believe that there is a private property aspect to public streets, and the ability to monitor the comings-and-goings on this once-private property would not be covered in the grant, would it? You seem to be contradicting yourself...

Like this comment
Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 12, 2007 at 9:33 pm

I believe the dedication of the streets was conditional. Monitoring public streets is consistent with the dedication.

Like this comment
Posted by Susan Rosenberg
a resident of College Terrace
on Jun 23, 2007 at 2:40 pm

The gist of her blog are the privacy issues of having photographs of ones home posted on the internet by a third party, which are certainly worth discussion. When she speaks of Sam Yates' project, The Color of Palo Alto, though, she misleads the reader.

In all fairness to my community and the artist, the record needs to be set straight. In 2001 Yates was commissioned by the Palo Alto Art Commission to find The Color of Palo Alto by photographing every parcel in Palo Alto. For this he was paid a $10,000 commission. Several years later, the Art Commission saw the immense value this project brings to the community and, with most of the funding ($40,000) coming from HP, agreed to a $65,000 budget to display the 17,860 images on the front of City Hall. According to the budget, most of the expense will be in materials and installation.

Yates hoped to unveil The Color of Palo Alto this Fall, he never "promised the commission" it would be September. When we have the good fortune to see what Sam has been working on, I have no doubt that it will be a milestone for Palo Alto.

Like this comment
Posted by Morris
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jun 23, 2007 at 2:58 pm

yes, another milestone in wasted money in Palo Alto

Like this comment
Posted by R Wray
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jun 23, 2007 at 3:07 pm

When are they going to get rid of the stuff in the front plaza of City Hall? This has been an eyesore long enough.

Like this comment
Posted by Matisse
a resident of another community
on Jun 24, 2007 at 12:33 am

"The Color of Palo Alto"? The color, and flow speed, of molasses should do.

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