Google's 'Street View': An Internet Peeping Tom?

Google's 'Street View': An Internet Peeping Tom?

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

The photographs 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 those photos across the Internet.

There are photos of women sunbathing at Stanford University, a man caught urinating in San Bruno, California, and a very clear picture of a woman's thong underwear as she was getting into her truck.

Google argues 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.

Stored and Catalogued

Street View photos are clear and are 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.

Of course, she could always 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.

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.

The company also says it has a mechanism whereby people can request images be removed, but in the long run there may be a better answer. Perhaps the increased transparency created by services such as 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 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," DiPasquale 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, science fiction writer David Brin argued the best way to prevent government from abusing surveillance technology is to keep the government itself under surveillance. Maybe if George Orwell's characters in 1984 had possessed the same technology as the state, the story line would have been much different.

Problems and issues with Google's Street View service will be dealt with over time as the company faces public pressure. Meanwhile, Google's roving crews should opt for streets with lots of government buildings and employees. They just might catch government with its pants down.


Sonia Arrison (sarrison@pacificresearch.org) is director of technology studies at the Pacific Research Institute. This article originally appeared on TechNewsWorld and is reprinted with permission.