Google Street View – Are You Ready for Your Close-Up?

New technology is a double-edged sword. It brings convenience, productivity, and sometimes just plain fun.

With that come the inevitable trade-offs. We love our cars but the lack of exercise contributes to obesity. Phones are great yet we loathe telemarketers. Usually we’ve got a choice: embrace the new technology or toss it aside.

An interesting innovation has struck at the very core of that choice and It’s stirring up controversy from small-town streets to the largest cities on the planet. It’s Google Street View, and It’s now providing high-resolution, street-level images of 15 cities across Canada including Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal, Halifax, and Vancouver, as well as other cities around the world.

If you haven’t seen it yet, you may want to get acquainted with Pegman. He’s the little yellow character on Google maps who lets you take a virtual drive around town and zoom in for a close-up. How close? Close enough to read the signs in store windows, see what kinds of drinks people are carrying in their hands, and even peer at the contents of open garages.

All of which has plenty of people feeling very exposed and asking a worrying question: is Google Street View (and similar technology) an invasion of privacy and a threat to safety?

Let’s take a look at the pros and cons?and then we want to hear from you.

When it comes to privacy, millions of people are eager to splash personal details and photos across social networking sites. So goes one of the arguments in defence of Street View. True, except that users control what they post on social networking sites. Not so with Street View; if the camera captures you, it could be months before you realize that the world knows which fast-food joint you frequent.

So where’s the harm in that? Well, one issue That’s been raised is that the information on Street View could give criminals a wealth of data. Burglars could case potential targets; pedophiles could find out what streets have schools or parks on them; petty criminals could target convenience stores and other small businesses according to how isolated nearby streets look.

In reality, Street View is probably the last place criminals would go to get that information. Let’s face it?if a burglar is going to survey potential targets, he’s hardly likely to rely on a single snapshot in time. It would take a seriously daft person to believe that It’s a great way to find out whether there’s a dog in the yard or a security system in place. And if You’re concerned that, at the very least, Street View will alert thieves to luxury properties they hadn’t known about, well, millions of online real estate listings offer a much bigger jackpot of information (including tours inside houses).

As for the locations of schools and parks, those details are easily found online or even in the local phone book. In this case, services like Street View aren’t giving away anything that isn’t already freely available.

But where a service like Street View could cause problems is in the cases of men or women who have fled abusive relationships. Say, for instance, a woman has left a violent spouse. She’s settled with her children in a distant city or even another country. Then, one day, her image or her children’s is captured and posted online, complete with details about the street she was on. (There’s at least one recorded case where this has already happened in the UK.) That information could easily put someone’s life in jeopardy.

Google’s rebuttal is that their technology blurs faces and license plates. That’s a flimsy privacy measure given the high level of detail the service provides. It’s not a problem if a total stranger’s face is blurred. But if a photo of a dozen of your closest friends and family is put in front of you, It’s ridiculous to think you wouldn’t instantly recognize them?or an ex You’re chasing?blurry faces or not.

The same thing goes for vehicles. The license plates may be concealed, but most people’s cars are personalized extensions of themselves. Odds are you’d recognize that window decal or rear-view bauble anywhere.

Although the service only launched in Canada on October 7, assistant privacy commissioner Elizabeth Denham has already cited serious concerns about the consistency of Google’s face-obscuring tools, telling MPs that ?we’ve found many instances where people’s faces aren’t blurred.?

But is the face-blurring issue really that big a deal? Not when you consider that you could easily be captured as part of a crowd shot and wind up on the front page of a newspaper, on somebody’s Facebook page, or on some other website. In the example of a news photo, you wouldn’t even have the option that Street View offers: Google claims it will remove photos within 24 hours of a complaint.

So what are some of the pluses? Besides the fact that It’s cool to check out places you know, Street View can be incredibly useful. Thinking of buying a house? It can be a real time-saver to virtually drive around neighbourhoods to help narrow down a list of showings. Visiting a strange city? Get familiar (and avoid getting lost) by ?driving? the route ahead of time and looking for landmarks. Locate parking facilities, scout out nearby restaurants before meeting friends, and see if the beach is really as close as the resort says it is?before you book your holiday.

Google has already faced legal challenges over its Street View service and won. However, the bottom line is that customer (or user) loyalty goes a long way in determining a service’s success. And Google has already irritated more than a few people by trespassing on private property. As the Press Democrat reported in 2008, ?from Sonoma County to Humboldt County and as far away as Australia, the Internet giant has already posted photographs taken on private property.? In some cases, Google cameras deliberately ignored No Trespassing signs and intruded as far as 1,200 feet up private roads to photograph houses.

As we venture further into the uncharted waters of mass electronic surveillance, the issues surrounding services like Street View will almost certainly reappear in the courts. In the meantime, smile. You never know when It’s going to be your turn for a close-up.

What do you think of Google Street View? Email your comments to voice@voicemagazine.org by November 6 and we’ll enter your name in a draw for 1 of 3 Voice USB hubs. (Your email must include permission for us to publish your first name and comments.)

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