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You can look at almost anything on Google. Just don't try to sneak a peek of the homes in the private community of North Oaks.
The city of 4,500 residents has demanded that Google Maps remove images of North Oaks homes from the website's Street View feature, where any Internet user can glimpse a home from the nearest road.
North Oaks' unique situation, in which the roads are privately owned by the residents and the city enforces a trespassing ordinance, may have made it the first city in the country to request that the online search engine remove images from Google Maps.
"It's not the hoity-toity folks trying to figure out how to keep the world away," said Mayor Thomas Watson. "They really didn't have any authorization to go on private property."
Since the introduction of Google Maps' Street View last spring, the feature has caused controversy in several cities and with the federal government. The Pentagon banned Google Maps from taking any images of military facilities, and a Pittsburgh couple sued the company over images of their home taken from the private road in front of their house.
The North Oaks City Council sent a letter to Google in January asking the company to remove the images and destroy the files or possibly be cited for violating the city's trespassing ordinance.
Google spokeswoman Elaine Filadelfo said the images of North Oaks were removed shortly afterward. She didn't know of any other city in the country that has made a similar request.
"This is very rare where an entire town would request to be taken off," Filadelfo said.
The company receives a limited number of requests from individuals who don't want their homes displayed on the website. All of these images are removed from public view and would never be sold, Filadelfo said.
Violation of city law
North Oaks officials stressed that they needed to enforce the city's law against trespassing, whether it be a motorist who isn't aware of the rules or the Internet search engine behemoth.
"You had a guy with a dashboard camera going around taking pictures," Watson said. "They wouldn't be able to film on your property and advertise it."
The Google images are collected by drivers in cars with mounted cameras and marked with the company's logo, Filadelfo said. She said the driver likely didn't see North Oaks' no-trespassing signs. The city took down its gates 24 years ago.
"Certainly private roads are something we take seriously," Filadelfo said. "But it may not be immediately apparent with a whole city."
Satellite images of North Oaks homes are still available on websites such as Windows Live Search Maps, but Watson said the city wouldn't be confronting that site about the images because city ordinances weren't violated to obtain the pictures.
Protecting privacy online
North Oaks' action against Google stirs the debate about public information versus private information -- a line that is often blurred on the Internet. While North Oaks has clear laws regarding access to its roads, people who live on public roads can't expect the same level of privacy.
Google Maps images are supposed to be taken from public roads, where there is no guarantee of privacy under federal law. But some people in other cities have been caught by Google cameras doing things they might have wished were private -- urinating in public, undressing in a car, entering an adult bookstore. The images are not live action; they are taken over a scheduled period of time in each city.
The private golf club and residences in Eden Prairie's Bearpath community haven't been photographed by Google -- yet.
John Downey, general manager of the Bearpath Golf and Country Club, said residents would probably have concerns about security if their homes were visible on the Internet.
"As a private club, we would have to understand what Google was going to do with it," Downey said.
Local government officials say they understand North Oaks' decision, but they see benefit in other programs that use digital mapping. Geographic information systems (GIS) use satellite maps and databases to create models of a community's geographic and demographic details.
Ramsey County Commissioner Victoria Reinhardt serves on the MetroGIS' policy board for the Twin Cities area and said local governments can use the system to plan for emergencies or decide where they need to build a new library. She said citizens need to understand the difference between a product like Google Street View and a public tool like GIS.
"The bottom line is what GIS and what Google is doing are not the same thing," Reinhardt said. "[Geographic information systems] use aerial photography, but that's very different than driving up my driveway."
Lora Pabst • 612-673-4628