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Top US Senator to Apple, Google: 'Curb your spy planes'

'Military-grade' surveillance can see through windows

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One week after Apple announced it was booting Google Maps from iOS and photographing the world with its own aerial fleet, a top US Senator has written to both companies expressing concern over their "military-grade spy planes."

"Barbequing or sunbathing in your backyard shouldn't be a public event," said Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) in a statement on Monday. "People should be free from the worry of some high-tech peeping Tom technology violating one's privacy when in your own home."

Schumer noted that although Google Maps and Google Earth have used satellite imagery in the past, "reports have suggested" that both Google and Apple have upgraded their capabilities to aircraft-based photography that can see through windows and capture detailed images with four-inch resolution.

Although Schumer specifically mentioned sunbathing – and we never even knew he was a Reg reader – his remarks suggest that his main concern isn't high-flying voyeurism, but rather intelligence that could aid terroists and other miscreants.

"Detailed photographs could also provide criminals and terrorists with detailed views of sensitive utilities," he wrote to Apple CEO Tim Cook and Google CEO Larry Page, noting that although there are online sources which currently show such potential targets as power lines, substations, and reservoirs, those images are in low resolution.

"However," Schumer surmised, "if highly detailed images become available, criminals could create more complete schematic maps of the power and water grids in the United States. With the vast amount of infrastructure across the country, it would be impossible to secure every location."

Accordingly, Schumer has asked Apple and Google to "put protocols in place" to work with law enforcement and local governments to ensure that "sensitive infrastructure details" are blurred in images shared with the public – although exactly who would develop those protocols and who would define what's sensitive, Schumer leaves up to the parties involved.

As far as protections against having your barbecue or sunbathing session being violated by aerial snoops, Schumer has three additional suggestions: first, Apple and Google should inform communities when they are to be surveiled; second, they should give property owners the right to opt out of the aerial intrusion; and third, they should blur out images of individuals.

The first would give homegrown-ganja fans time to bring potted Mary Jane in from their patios, the second would stop building inspectors from discovering an illegal backyard shed, and the third would shield the aforementioned sunbather from further aerial embarassment.

As Schumer notes, "Google plans to have three-dimensional maps of areas covering the residences of over 300 million people by the end of this year," so his suggestions are timely – well, overdue, actually. However, from Apple and Google's point of view, they are also time-consuming, expensive, and just generally a pain in the posterior.

Schumer's suggestions are merely that: suggestions with no force of law. It will be interesting to see how this all plays out – but The Reg suggests that until further notice, you might do well to close your drapes and keep your eyes on the skies. ®

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