New Service Lets Surfers Get Up Close And Personal…
“In the face of ethical concerns, Google is considering changes to its Street View Google Maps feature that would protect the privacy of those it photographs…”
Boston -- Despite protests from privacy advocates, Google Inc., is all set to introduce its “Street View” feature for eight more U.S. cities, offering 360-degree, street-level images of urban life so clear that passers-by often can be identified, is set to make its Boston debut on 18 December, 2007.
Starting at around 10 a.m., Internet users who click on the “Street View” box on Google Maps (maps.google.com) will be able to peek at images from streets in Boston and surrounding communities.
The Boston Globe reported that the Google camera crews drove for several weeks early last year, capturing panoramic images from cars and vans equipped with cameras that have been programmed into the search site, stitching together views that users can then pan and zoom in on as if they were in the street themselves.
“The feature, which already captures street scenes in 15 cities across the country, has become popular among people planning vacations, searching for shops or restaurants, or checking out landmarks such as Wrigley Field in Chicago or the Empire State Building in New York.”
But it drew protests from privacy advocates when it was introduced in May in San Francisco, where people complained about the detail that everything from the clear photos of men entering adult bookstores to an image of a cat in a window.
“Enough to read street signs addresses and even recognize people if they happened to be visible as the Google camera crews drove public streets.”
“At Google, we take privacy concerns seriously,” said Stephen Chau, product manager for Google Maps. “All these images are taken on public streets. It is exactly what you could see walking down the street.”
An attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation was unknowingly caught on an image smoking a cigarette, something he did not want people to know he did.
Another image found on the San Francisco Street View was of a young woman who happened to be bending over near a pickup truck when the Google camera team passed by, inadvertently baring her thong.
Google ultimately removed the image at his request, but said the incident demonstrated the potential for worse abuse if other people were photographed going to Alcoholic Anonymous meetings, health clinics for sensitive procedures, or other places that could compromise their privacy.
While those might be legitimate uses of Street View, the feature also has the potential to be used for more questionable pursuits, such as compiling digital dossiers on individuals, critics warned.
But while Google has developed technology that can obscure faces and license plate numbers in Street View images, the company has said it will blur those images only in countries where it is required to do so, not in the United States.
“The eight new cities are Boston; Dallas and Fort Worth in Texas, Indianapolis; Detroit; Minneapolis; St. Paul, Minnesota; and Providence, Rhode Island. The service covers only certain streets and neighborhoods in these cites where it is available, although in some cities, like San Francisco, the majority of streets have been photographed.”
“Google said it would extend Street View to cities and towns of all sizes worldwide.”
They bring to 23 the total of cities now covered by the feature and Chau said Google plans to keep adding and expanding the service across the U.S., eventually to other countries.
“As Google gets closer and closer to its stated goal of indexing all the world’s information, more and more issues arise,” said John G. Palfrey Jr., executive director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School.
Google’s Chau said that anyone concerned about an image of themselves, their house address or license plate being recognizable can flag the photo and ask Google to remove it.
He stressed, however, that Google crews drove public roads and only took photos of what was visible from the street.
Google is also introducing a “mashup” service Tuesday that would enable Internet users to import Street View panoramas from particular streets or neighborhoods to their own Web sites or blogs. The service is intended to make it easier for people to use Street View to recommend sights, locate coffee shops, or design virtual walking tours.
Critics warn that while those might be legitimate uses of Street View, the feature also has the potential to be used for more questionable pursuits, like compiling digital dossiers on individuals.
“In the privacy realm, Google is asking people for a lot of trust. The ball is really in Google’s court to prove they are not going to violate people’s privacy.”
When Street View is rolled out in Europe, Google will alter Street View photos to make sure that faces and license plate numbers are no longer visible, and the company is also thinking about doing the same with the U.S. version of the product, said Jane Horvath, senior privacy counsel with Google.
Developed by Immersive Media, Street View lets users click on a city street and then see a panoramic photograph of the area. The pictures are taken by special 360-degree cameras roof-mounted on Volkswagen Beetles that cruise around town, constantly snapping photographs. The photos are often so clear that people on the street can be identified.
“In other jurisdictions … like Canada and the E.U., when we launch our product there, we will be under an obligation to ensure that faces are not recognizable, nor are license tags,” Horvath said at a discussion at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. “As we launch those products we will be thinking within our product teams whether this is something that we would like to do within the U.S. also.”
“The company hopes to refresh its images to document changing streets, but its highest priority has been expanding to new cities, Chau said.”
Internet users visiting Street View are shown a map of the United States and can click on icons shaped like cameras to view cities Google has photographed. From there, they can type in a street address or call up blue-outlined streets to view images that can be rotated and zoomed in.
Google, in refusing to blur faces of individuals in U.S. cities, has faced a chorus of critics in cities already catalogued in Street View, including New York, and Chicago, who have called on the company to install technology that makes people pictured more anonymous.
In the U.S., Google can legally publish photographs taken in public places without securing permission from people who happen to pop up in the shots, but this practice violates privacy laws in many other countries.
And even if it is legal, some may still be uncomfortable with the photographs, Horvath admitted.
“It is sort of that ‘icky’ feeling that something makes you feel uncomfortable,” she said. “Our products are not static and we are always open to changing them to make sure our users feel comfortable and trust us with their information.”
“I think these calls into question the whole idea of whether privacy is something that needs to be regulated by law or if there is this other concept of privacy that we need to look at, which is the right to autonomy.”
Chau, however, said that while critics of Street View had been vocal, the company had received no more than a couple of dozen requests from people seeking to remove pictures of them-selves since the feature was launched last spring.
“This has not been a big concern among our users,” he said. “The biggest complaint is the service is not available in their city yet.”