June 4, 2007


Google Reaches New (Street) Level in Creepy

By Pamela Mortimer


Google has released its newest map feature in details street level views of specific cities. As opposed to previous incarnations, these maps are so precise that you can see the people on the street.



According to the Google website, “With Street View, you can virtually explore city neighborhoods by viewing and navigating within 360-degree scenes of street-level imagery. It feels as if you're walking down the street!”


It’s true. Google has chosen select cities in which to test drive its newest feature titled Street View. Cities include San Francisco, Las Vega, New York, Denver, and Miami.

The maps cover the streets beginning at a target address. The viewer is able to pan the street 360 degrees, either looking for a particular landmark to visit or to walk down memory lane. Beware, however, that panning too fast can make you sea sick, er uh, street sick.


While people may enjoy this novelty, or semi-legalized voyeurism as some might see it, others feel that it is a distinct violation of privacy.


"This imagery is no different from what any person can readily capture or see walking down the street," Google spokeswoman Megan Quinn said in a statement. "Imagery of this kind is available in a wide variety of formats for cities all around the world."


Suddenly, I feel the strong presence of George Orwell.


The objection raised by many is that they didn’t sign up for this project and being filmed or shot while going about their day must be illegal. Google states that the photos taken of the people on public streets – most of which are blurry enough to mask their identities – were taken at an undisclosed time last year. The photos were also taken from a moving vehicle. Maybe it’s only illegal if it’s a <I>good</> picture.


"Everyone expects a certain level of anonymity as they move about their daily lives," said Kevin Bankston, a staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a group devoted to protecting people's rights on the Internet. "There is a certain 'ick' factor here."


Google does offer a “help” button and link on all photos so that they can be removed if they appear to be offensive or depict people who clearly do not want to be photographed. Google spokeswoman Victoria Grand said Google has received "very few" removal requests to date.


Naturally, the photos getting the most attention are those of people performing unusual, disgusting, or political acts. Included are the man picking his nose on a street corner in the Bay area, a man scaling the side of an apartment building, scantily clad Stanford co-eds sunbathing in bikinis, men entering or leaving adult book stores and strip clubs, a group doing Tai Chi in a park, and in Miami, protesters picketing outside an abortion clinic.


One of the fears of people such as Elaine Diamond of Miami’s A Choice For Women, the abortion clinic that appears on the Google website, is that people will be afraid to ask for help for fear of being filmed or photographed. Similar fears have been echoed by staff and administration of various mental health establishments.


"It's a tough area, but it just seems there is no way around the fact that public spaces are public spaces," Lauren Weinstein, co-founder of People For Internet Responsibility, a policy group said. "You don't want to create an environment where it becomes illegal to take photos in public. It can be riskier not to be able to see something than it is to be able to see something."


As of Friday afternoon, Diamond was still trying to have the clinic’s photos removed from the site.