Following up on Google Street View

There continues to be quite a bit of buzz and concern about Google’s “Street View” enhancement for Google Maps. A couple of comments on recent developments:

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I don’t want to be picky, but given all the (necessary) attention given to the privacy aspects of Street View, I still wonder where everyone was when Microsoft launched basically the same service last year. As I pointed out then, the same privacy and surveillance concerns emerge. Is Microsoft truly that irrelevant now that we’re no longer concerned about their ability to surveil and collect personal information?

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Street View Camera Business Week has a short profile of the company who has an exclusive agreement with Google to provide the imaging. The story includes some details of the 11-lens camera, called a Dodeca 2360, used to provide the Street View images. They note: “What makes it unique is its dodecahedron (12-sided) shape, which captures images consistently in every direction. Anyone can buy one for around $100,000, but only a handful have been sold—mostly to government agencies.” So, Google and government agencies are the only one’s who have access to this imaging technology…lovely…

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It has been reported that in order to have your image removed from Street View, you must provide Google your legal name, e-mail address, URL of the Street View image, a copy of your driver’s license or other government ID, and proof of your association with that address (letterhead, utility bill, etc). Of course, many consider providing this level of detailed information to Google just as harmful as the Street View image itself, especially since there doesn’t seem to be a privacy policy in place regarding their handling of this extraneous personal data.

Google eventually backed down on this set of requirements, instead asking for only your name and the image location. While some herald this as Google taking action about privacy concerns, it seems more like a poorly-thought-out knee-jerk reaction to an original poorly-thought-out policy. Given this thin requirement, little prevents me from requesting to have images removed of anyone I feel like (competitors, friends, etc). If Google really wanted to take action to help protect people’s privacy in public, they would add a link to “remove your image” on the Street View main interface, rather than hiding it 2 clicks away on a help page.

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Philipp Lenssen provides a translation of an interview with Head of Google Northern Europe Philipp Schindler that appeared in the German Spiegel Online, where Schnidler responds to some of the privacy concerns:

The Street View feature includes only those photos taken from public grounds. The imagery is not different from anything each of us can photograph themselves – the kinds of things you’d see when you walk the streets. Added to that, we spoke to a variety of US organizations to get a feeling if there’s potential concerns, and if so, which these are. In the cases where we found out it’s necessary to introduce special privacy protections, we reacted prior to launch. For instance, you won’t find images of accommodations for the homeless, or abortion clinics.

Those familiar with my research can predict my objections with the implicit claim that images taken in public places are unproblematic. But what bugs me about Schindler’s comment is the odd assumption that removing images of homeless shelters somehow protects the privacy of those individuals, along with his claim that abortion clinics have been scrubbed as well. I found this image of a Planned Parenthood clinic in lower Manhattan the first day this was launched!Street View fight

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Finally, odd scenarios continue to be found within Street View, including this sequence of a violent street fight captured for posterity as the van passed by.

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