The Long Street View

Google’s mapping service just introduced a new feature called “Street View,” offering detailed photos of addresses in San Francisco, New York, Las Vegas, Denver and Miami. While the company might not be breaking any privacy laws, the service raises concerns that need to be addressed.

The photographs are not live and were taken from a device with multiple cameras attached to a car that drove down each available street. The problem for some is that the cameras took photos of people not expecting to be photographed and broadcast across the Net. There are photos of women sunbathing at Stanford University, a man caught urinating in San Bruno, Calif., and a very clear picture of a woman’s thong underwear as she was getting into her truck.

Google argues that the photos are “no different from what any person can readily capture or see walking down the street.” That’s true if you can see the image for a few minutes and then it disappears, or if it is a random photo from a camera phone posted online. However, that’s not how it works.

Google: The Internet’s Peeping Tom?

The Street View photos are clear, systematically stored, and anyone anywhere in the world can zoom in as if with a telescope. That seems more like a peeping Tom to some, including Mary Kalin-Casey, who complained that when she zoomed in on her address, she could see her cat sitting in the living room window of her second-floor apartment. It’s not hard to imagine that instead of her cat, it could have been her in sleepwear, or less.

Of course, there’s an easy fix to that problem — she could close her curtains — but that raises the question of whether people should have to worry that someone is taking photos of their home to be linked with an identifiable address and broadcast internationally. Previously, no company looked into everyone’s window. There is also the question of what happens when face-recognition technology makes it easy to identify the random people captured in these photos.

To be fair, Google did take into account some privacy concerns. For example, the company agreed to remove photos of women’s shelters to protect victims of domestic violence. However, what about a closeted gay man captured in San Francisco’s Castro district then broadcast worldwide by Google? The company says they have a mechanism whereby people can request that images be removed, but in the long run there may be a better answer. Perhaps the increased transparency created by services like Street View will lead to changes in societal values.

Raising Acceptance

“People’s expectations will change,” said Joe DiPasquale, founder and CEO of CollegeWikis, a company that makes a broadcasting widget that students use inside social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook. The more transparency there is for everyone, the more accepting people will become of others’ flaws, DiPasquale believes. “Things will become less shocking,” he said, “this is the acceleration of the acceptance of humanity.”

DiPasquale may be right, but whatever the cultural outcome, Google, a private company, is helping to create this transparent society. That means government will not be in total control of public surveillance data, and that is a good thing.

Almost a decade ago, writer David Brin argued that the best way to prevent government from abusing surveillance technology is to keep the government itself under surveillance. This makes good sense: consider that in George Orwell’s novel 1984, the state held a monopoly on surveillance technologies. If Orwell’s characters had possessed similar technology, the story line would have been much different.

Watching the Watchers

Problems and issues with Google’s Street View service will be dealt with over time as the company faces public pressure. Meanwhile, Americans should advocate for equal treatment and diversity under transparency.

Cameras may be high-tech but, after all, somebody still has to decide where to point them. Google’s roving crews should opt for streets with lots of government buildings and employees. They just might catch government, as it were, with its pants down.

Sonia Arrison, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is director of Technology Studies at the California-based Pacific Research Institute.

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