Having just posted my last reflection on “Go, ogle”, I was in Southampton on Sunday and there it was – “Ogle Road”! This must be where the Google camera van/car/snowmobile/tricycles hang out when it’s dark and they cannot take the photos that their ‘masters’ want.
It did, though, also make me reflect further on the ethical issues surrounding Google’s Street View ‘technology’. Much has already been written about this, but with the advent of Google’s 4th generation cameras that take near-HD quality images, and continuing debate in the EU about privacy issues associated with Street View, for which we should all be grateful, it is worth once again highlighting some of the issues that this raises.
A recent report by Claudia Rach for Bloomberg Businessweek has some interesting comments from Michael Jones, Google’s chief technology advocate and founder of Google Earth:
- “I think we would consider whether we want to drive through Europe again, because it would make the expense so draining”
- “I think that privacy is more important than technology but for privacy people it is only about privacy but for us it is also about technology”
The first of these was partly in response to the suggestion that Google should only keep unblurred images for 6 months instead of a year. Again, quoting from Rach’s report, Peter Fleischer, a Google lawyer in charge of privacy issues, said “The need to retain the unblurred images is legitimate and justified — to ensure the quality and accuracy of our maps, to improve our ability to rectify mistakes in blurring, as well as to use the data we have collected to build better maps products for our users”. This means that Google keep all this information unblurred on their servers – which, of course, means that Google and its relevant employees have access to it. What happens when someone hacks into this information, or a government asks for it in connection with some important state ‘need’?
Jones’ second comment above is indeed surprising. There is little evidence that Google has ever put privacy above technology. Its technological prowess has been at the forefront of raising new ethical questions – one of which is indeed about privacy.
So, just to add to the debate, I thought I would come up with a list of ten interesting uses for Street View:
- for car thieves wanting to plan where to steal particular brands of car to order – just look on people’s drives
- for double glazing companies (or for that matter firms offering to redo your drive) to target individual houses that might be ripe for marketing – individualised targeted mailings
- for revolutionaries (or what governments in capitalist countries call ‘terrorists’) to decide where best to plant explosive devices to cause maximum damage
- for people wanting to reconstruct buildings on streets that have been destroyed by earthquakes (or other such disasters) – you can see how it looked a year ago
- for burglars wanting to find the quickest getaway having robbed a property (see Phil Muncaster’s summary on v3.co.uk)
- for recognising what your friends were doing when the Google car passed – yes, of course you can recognise people even with their faces blurred
- for checking out those naked sunbathers
- for finding exactly what that pub that your friends took you to last night looks like in the daylight when you can’t remember where it is
- for checking out what the holiday villa you are thinking of booking really looks like
- and as findaproperty says, “With the panoramic street level photographs you can get a feel for the property, its location and neighbourhood, before visiting it – which saves you a lot of time and means you don’t have to decided whether you want to view a property based solely on the description of the area as provided by the estate agents” – ah, isn’t that nice…