Here’s How Google Street View Gets Its Pictures

Because we know you've wondered how they obtain those eerily accurate pictures of your house.

Google Street View is certainly a handy feature. You can get a look at a hotel you’re planning on booking to see what kind of area it’s in and if it looks like it’s worth the money. You can scan around a place you’ve never been to before to see what kind of parking is available and plan accordingly. But despite the convenience, it can still be a little unnerving to see a picture of your house, plain as day, on this super-popular Internet service that anyone can access. So how does Google Street View have that picture of your house—or any of their pictures, for that matter?

Street View cars

Despite what you may have heard, Google is not actually using satellite technology to get its images. The primary way they obtain their photos is with their Google Street View cars. You may have seen one of these vehicles, which, to their credit, are not surreptitious about what they are or what they’re there to do!

These Google-mobiles first debuted in 2007, and as photo technology has improved, so have they. So how do they work? A Google spokesperson has answers. “Street View cars have special cameras that take photographs as they drive down public streets,” he told Reader’s Digest. “Once the photographs have been taken, they go through computer processing to make them ready for use on Google Maps.” The image-processing technology “stitches” the photos to create the seamless 360-degree images that you’ll see on Street View. Another tweak they make is to blur any faces or license plates that might appear in the images, to protect their owners’ safety and privacy. Speaking of privacy, here’s how to see—and delete—your Google activity.

Worldwide contributors

“Google [would like] to map as much as we can on our own, but the world is still a big place,” the Google spokesperson explained. “Contributions from people can help keep Street View imagery updated.” So while Google’s ubiquitousness might make it seem like it could easily cover the whole globe, that’s far from the truth! The spokesperson confirmed that the cars are only used in 87 countries.

So sometimes, if there’s a tiny country that doesn’t have Google Street View cars, or a very geographically remote location where cars wouldn’t be conducive, Google can use images from its volunteers. Volunteers like Herve Andrieu, an enthusiastic Google local guide and editor of googlemaps.guru who has over 67,000 photos on Google Maps. “Google heavily relies on the volunteer work from the local guides who are posting pictures day after day,” Andrieu told RD.com. “Anyone can be a local guide as long as they have a Gmail account and access to Google Maps.”

The guides can submit photos for places that may otherwise have been completely unrepresented in Google Maps. “Amazing people and organizations have added entire cities and countries to Street View, from Tonga and Tahiti to Bermuda and Zimbabwe,” the Google spokesperson says. We bet you didn’t know that these 10 helpful Google Maps tricks existed.

Is there anywhere they can’t go?

In addition to using photos from its local contributors, Google also has a couple of other types of vehicles better equipped to handle rough terrain than cars. There are trolleys, snowmobiles, and three-wheelers, as well as a Street View Trekker. This portable contraption allows people to bring the camera with them to snag images that cars never could.

Physical barriers are one thing, but are there any places where Google is forbidden to take pictures? Well, the spokesperson makes it clear that “Street View only features imagery taken in public locations.” This means that, while residential streets are fair game, Google must get special permission to take photos of places like gated communities.

There also might be government restrictions in place, not specifically to oppose Google, but just in general, that make it tougher to obtain the pictures. Andrieu says that, for instance, Germany has pretty strict privacy laws that can prevent Google from publishing pictures of their streets. Now that you know where Google Maps gets their images, check out these other cool Google tricks you’ll want to try right now.

Meghan Jones
Meghan Jones is a Staff Writer for RD.com who has been writing since before she could write. She graduated from Marist College with a Bachelor of Arts in English and has been writing for Reader's Digest since 2017. In spring 2017, her creative nonfiction piece "Anticipation" was published in Angles literary magazine. She is a proud Hufflepuff and member of Team Cap.