Google Earth closeups and property rights

March 09, 2007

The post about Google Maps super-closeups hit me with something that someone else has illustrated with the buttcrack video: with these super-imaging technologies, you aren’t really private anywhere any more.

It used to be so that you could “get away” to some remote island or into the woods, away from other people, paparazzis and such, to do whatever you wanted to do in private, knowing that you’d be alone. Now you can’t really be sure of that, for all you know, there may be a satellite flying over, taking your picture, and it shows up on the Internet the next day. Of course the military have had access to such imaging technologies for decades, but only in the recent years have these been commoditized and popularized by things like Google Earth.

Is there any way to limit this? I think it will end up with some expansion of property rights concept. When property rights first came about for real estate, they were only about land and water where people could walk and swim/ship things, because no one imagined that one day things will be flying over your head and taking pictures of you. So currently, you own only your land and the stuff that you are able to build on it. You don’t own the airspace above your land, this is “managed” by your government. But there’s no reason why property rights could not extend into airspace. Currently, the government needs to negotiate with you if they want to build a road across your land. The airspace has been excluded of this so far, but perhaps there will be a mechanism to limit who can take photos of your stuff from air and fly over it?

Or if this property rights thing sounds too far-fetched, then advances in materials science will bring about new materials that will be cost-effective to “drape” your property with. So that if you have a private beach, you will be able to cover it with something (one-way see-through glass-like plastic?) that will not be disturbing to you when you are sitting on the beach and will let sun and wind through, yet will prevent satellites and paparazzis from taking photos of you. And it will of course be expensive initially and only rich people will be able to afford it, but they are the ones having most trouble with paparazzis anyway so the economy is fair here.