Published Thursday, May 10, 2018 5:04PM EDT
A Google Street View camera car drove past “no photography” signs on a public road near the Ottawa headquarters of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), collecting photos of people and vehicles that were added to Google Maps last year, according to a pair of amateur online investigators.
Richard Trus and Sydney Eatz say they identified the images, which were removed from Google Maps on Tuesday, and could have been used to identify employees of the Canadian spy agency, and even track their vehicles to their homes.
Google Street View is a Google Maps feature that provides ground-level panoramic views of locations around the world.
Google blurs out faces and licence plates in images captured by their camera cars, but Trus and Eatz claim they were able to use a reverse image search to track a red SUV from a roundabout on the CSIS campus to a residential driveway in less than eight minutes.
“Each vehicle has a fingerprint,” Trus told CTVNews.ca in an interview. “It doesn’t matter that the licence (plate) is blurred, that is irrelevant. No two vehicles are exactly alike. They will have dings on them, or vehicles will have different rims.”
He said dealership-branded license plate frames and roof racks can also be used to identify specific vehicles.
Trus, whose background includes work in visual effects and 3D animation, said images of people who appear to be coming and going from the CSIS campus could be analyzed to identify them, using distinguishing features such as ID badges, clothing, glasses, and other physical traits.
“All these things can identify who a person is,” he said. “Street View captures multiple angles (as the car passes by). I could actually take the images and create a 3D model of the person.”
Trus said the situation is by no means unique, given that Google drives its Street View camera cars along public roads near secure locations around the world.
“A terrorist organization doesn’t need to come to Canada anymore in order to find out who agents and employees are. They could use Google Street View in order to data mine and spy against Canadian spy agencies from the comfort of their own homes,” he said.
The latest images collected around the CSIS building appear to have been online since 2017. Google Maps indicates the company’s vehicles have been active in the area since 2007. The company relies on its users to flag inappropriate content.
A CSIS spokesperson said its campus is open during the day, and the agency has “robust” security in place, which the agency cannot speak about publicly. Signs in the area instruct people that taking photos and videos is prohibited.
“CSIS’ role is to protect Canadians and that includes our employees. We take this role extremely seriously,” spokesperson Tahera Mufti said in an emailed statement to CTVNews.ca. “Protecting our own allows us to protect our fellow Canadians.”
Google said it has content removal policies in place in case a Street View camera car captures inappropriate content.
“We respect that people may not want certain images featured, so we provide easily accessible tools for flagging sensitive imagery for review and removal,” company spokesperson Alexandra Hunnings Klein wrote in a statement to CTVNews.ca. “To report an issue in Street View, there is a “Report a Problem” link at the bottom of every page.”
Eatz said she has submitted material about privacy concerns involving Google to the chair of a House of Commons committee reviewing internet privacy in the wake of the misuse of Facebook data by the now-defunct research firm Cambridge Analytica.
Trus said Ottawa needs to impose more stringent rules on Google, to ensure national security is being protected.
“You have an instance of an American company coming in and breaching the privacy and national security of our country,” he said. “If this was an individual who had done this, photographed CSIS and posted this online, I’m sure there would be charges.”