Posted by: Clive | August 1, 2008

In a street near you

There has been quite a lot of controversy over the project by Google to introduce Street View to its mapping services in the UK. It started in the US last May and produced new maps which are built from 360 degree panoramic images taken from specific points on city streets. Here’s an example showing a street view of the New York public library:

Clicking the white arrows on the image in Google maps, advances it down the street a few paces, and quickly loads a new panorama, and double clicking on any part of the image zooms you in. Because the images are produced from a video camera, you can ‘fly’ along the streets as if walking. Very powerful … in lots of ways.

Yet, there has seemed to be little concern in the US over privacy issues. When requested to remove an image of a person Google has maintained that it has done so. That hasn’t stopped the proliferation of collections of ‘unusual’ Street Views over the net though. This one on the left comes from Top 15 Google Street View Sightings.

When plans were muted that Google was to map the UK in the same way there was opposition from various civil rights groups. The claim was that images of faces and car registration numbers infringed people’s privacy in public spaces. In order to use a photograph of me for commercial purposes (Google maps is commercial and not a public service as we are sometimes lulled into thinking) Google (as does any company) needs my consent. Google counters the worry with the assurance that its technology can identify faces and registration numbers and blurrs them automatically. Amazing technology. Yet, when the same Google can be required to submit the names of its YouTube users to Viacom (this time they got away with keeping the data provided anonymous – but who knows in the future) and when it ‘lost’ employee data in a robbery, can we be that confident that the ‘blurring’ is not simply a technological cover-up?

So Google finally moved into various cities in the UK with its camera cars. Ironically, it has been through various reporters and citizen photographers sharing images on Google maps that their movement has, and continues to be, monitored.

Google’s ubiquity leaves me in a bit of a conundrum. My own use of Google products and tools has increased to such an extent that I worry about keeping so much of my digital life tied to one company. At the same time the functionality of the tools they offer is very often way ahead of their competitors – more that 80% of web users search with Google because it consistently offers better results. The arguments that their monopoly over my digital work would drive me from them, or that their questionable activities in China would deter me from using them, haven’t made inroads.

That leads to a more worrying hypothesis: do people opt for convenience and functionality in their digital work at the expense of privacy?

Anyone prepared to offer an empirical study to throw some light on this?



  1. […] my last post here (In a street near you) I talked about the ways in which Google has been challenged in its attempt to provide a street view […]

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