Senator calls for limit on peeping by Apple, Google spyplanes

Without limits, spy planes and 'military grade' cameras will invade property, not just map it, Schumer warns

Apple and Google need to quit escalating their contest for dominance of the air and the mapping software market before voters start worrying about high-tech companies using drones to peer in their windows at night, according to a letter scolding the two from prominent U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY).

Schumer, a high-ranking member of the Senate Judiciary and Finance and Banking/Urban Affairs committees.

Apple and Google have been at each other's throats over dominance of the mapping/personal navigation market since May, when word leaked that Apple planned to replace Google's mapping data and search from the backend of the Maps application in iOS 5 with a "cleaner, faster, more reliable" version from Apple itself.

Hoover Dam as seen in 3-D video acquired by Apple along with C3 Technologies:

Apple had always controlled the interface for its mapping application, but lacked the technology to provide high-speed map-data storage and search until its acquisition of Placebase, C3 Technologies, and Poly9 last year, according to 9To5Mac.

Instead of relying on Google's painfully assembled StreetView images and mapping data, Apple announced at its Worldwide Developers Conference 2012 that it would assemble its own mapping data using "military grade cameras" and "spy planes" to create images and data for "flyover" mapping capabilities in iOS6.

Apple swore it would equal or exceed Google's newly announced 3-D mapping and offline access with its own 3-D maps created using data from planes and helicopters flying over U.S. cities even as speakers described the plan at the WWDC June 11.

Google planned to match Apple aircraft for aircraft, prompting fears of aerial photography battles in the skies over the U.S. and mass invasions of privacy as search vendors seeking an edge got pictures of Aunt Janie in the bath through the garden window instead.

Both Apple and Google's new mapping-photo systems are designed to produce photos detailed enough to make out objects as small as four inches in diameter.

"You won't be able to sunbathe in your garden without worrying about an Apple or Google plane buzzing overhead taking pictures," according to quotes in the Daily Mail from civil-rights activist Nick Pickles of Big Brother Watch.

Apple said it had created a database with more than 100 million business listings that would also be available in its Maps app, which will be distributed on everything that runs iOS 6.

Competition is great, especially for the consumer, but both companies need to commit to serious steps to safeguard the privacy of people their mapping efforts photograph accidentally, according to Sen. Schumer's letter yesterday.

Both need to agree to blur out photos of individuals in the mapping pics, give property owners the chance to opt out of the process – deleting their property from the database – and cooperate with both local police and the Dept. of Homeland Security to make sure strategically sensitive facilities aren't photographed or located so closely terrorists could use satnav software to plan detailed real-world attacks, he wrote.

"Barbequing or sunbathing in your backyard shouldn’t be a public event," Schumer's letter read. "By taking detailed pictures of individuals in intimate locations such as around a pool, or in their backyard, or even through their windows, these programs have the potential to put private images on public display. We need to hit the pause button here and figure out what is happening and how we can best protect peoples’ privacy, without unduly impeding technological advancement."

The low resolution used for most satellite mapping applications leaves power and phone lines blurred; "military grade" photography would make it possible for criminals or terrorists to create detailed schematics of the critical infrastructure systems security analysts warn are already sitting ducks for attacks.

"We must strike the proper balance between privacy and technology," Schumer's letter read. "And while the use of this technology may well have very functional and important uses, we need to make sure that reasonable protections are in place to protect individuals and the public."

Who would have thought a U.S. Senator would have to become involved in negotiating a reduction of hostilities in the search-engine wars?

But then, who would have thought a war between search engines would mean a fight for dominance in the use of air power?

Read more of Kevin Fogarty's CoreIT blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @KevinFogarty. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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