Google Street Views: Caught In the Act

May 31, 2007 5:27pm

People who’ve gone poking around Google’s newly-unveiled "Street Views" have found a whole lotta stuff, some of which  has been at the top of the Drudge Report, others of which made it into Mike Nizza’s post at the New York Times:    A man on the street outside an adult bookstore….  A couple of people near a homeless shelter.  Would friends recognize them? And what is one man doing climbing a gate off Van Ness Ave. in San Francisco?  Is it his place?  Elinor Mills of CNET writes of a man at the Electronic Frontier Foundation–which spends a lot of time on digital  privacy–who was nailed smoking on the street by a Google-Maps wannabe a few years ago. This is one of those risks one runs in a digital democracy, where we’re all, presumably, free to do as we please, but we run the risk that some camera, routinely recording everything that’s going on, will catch us doing something that may take some explaining. The old argument, "If I’ve done nothing wrong I have nothing to hide," doesn’t cut it here.  The guy outside the porn shop may never have gone in–but might he have to have an awkward conversation with his wife?  Or his boss?  "All the imagery was taken by vehicles on public roads," said Google’s Stephen Chau–twice–when I asked him about such  matters yesterday.  "There are tools for people to flag images they don’t think are appropriate."  In other words, it’s not Google’s fault that it’s creating this massive database of random street scenes, and you’re free to go have your face  removed from an image if you’re offended–but you need to know you were out there when Google’s van happened to go by,  systematically recording every square foot it passed. In San Francisco, the detail is good enough that you can read license plates.  (In other cities, the images, provided by  outside companies, have lower resolution.)  The pictures are hardly live–but you don’t know when they were taken. When Google Maps first debuted, I went and looked for my own home.  I surmise, from the trees and the sun angle, that the  picture was taken in winter, in the early afternoon.  My car is not there. 

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