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Senator Schumer alarmed by Apple & Google 'spy-planes'

Are Google and Apple sending spy planes to peek into your living rooms and backyards? According to New York Senator Charles Schumer, the companies' new 3D mapping apps will use an unprecedented "level of precision" that raises security concerns.

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

Schumer today penned a letter to Google and Apple, asking the firms for more details about how their recently announced 3D mapping efforts will safeguard the privacy of those who might be photographed.

Earlier this month, Google demonstrated its own 3D maps technology, disclosing that a fleet of planes will fly above US cities to provide map imagery in three dimensions. Days later at its Worldwide Developer Conference, Apple also announced plans for its own iOS maps app that will use planes to help produce 3D imagery.

According to Schumer, the tech firms will be using "military-grade spy planes with enough precision to see through windows, catch detailed images of private backyard activities, and record images as small as four inches."

In his letter - sent to Apple CEO Tim Cook and Google chief Larry Page - Schumer asked the firms to provide people with prior notification about mapping efforts and asked them to blur photos of people and provide property owners with the option to opt-out of having their properties included in the apps.

"While programs like Google Maps and Google Earth have provided satellite imagery in the past, the level of precision that is reported to be obtained with these newly employed technologies, and potentially made available to the public, is unprecedented," Schumer's office said. "Schumer is asking for both companies to more fully explain the safeguards they intend to put in place to protect privacy needs and security."

Google and Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Schumer was also concerned that the detailed and precise imagery will be a valuable tool for criminals and terrorists, an issue that dates back several years. He suggested that current mapping programs provide rather grainy images of power lines, power sub stations, and reservoir access points, but said Google and Apple's efforts will make them more visible and vulnerable.

Google has already run into privacy issues with its existing Street View product, with regulators across the globe asking the search giant to blur faces, license plates, and other identifying details, which it does.

In May 2010, meanwhile, Google admitted that equipment attached to its Street View cars collected data that was traveling over unencrypted Wi-Fi networks, known as payload data. At first Google said it did not know if that data included personally identifiable information, but the company later admitted that it did include entire email addresses, URLs, and passwords.

After that admission, Google agreed to make some privacy changes, prompting the Federal Trade Commission to close its investigation into the matter. But the FCC conducted its own investigation and recently fined Google $25,000 (£16,000). That prompted U.K. regulators to re-open their investigation into the matter.

Apple will be tackling maps for the first time with iOS 6, but it has also run into privacy issues with its mobile operating system - namely, an iOS 4 glitch that inadvertently collected a treasure trove of location data from its users, prompting a Congressional inquiry.