We are looking at you

Google has begun to provide its “street view,” making available images of buildings, vehicles, sidewalks, trees, and people at specific locations. It’s pretty cool technology and, now that it is available via Google, people will learn about it, be intrigued, and have questions. It will also spawn an entire new set of markers as people find unusual items caught on the films used for the pavement-level views (see Mike Nizza’s article in the links).

Launched at the O’Reilly Where 2.0 Conference, the techonology is likely to be a hit. But there are other issues that will arise, too. For example, what’re the implications for privacy?

Miguel Helft has a good article about this in the New York Times. Here’s his lead:

Ms. Kalin-Casey, who manages an apartment building here with her husband, John Casey, was a bit shaken when she tried a new feature in Google’s map service called Street View. She typed in her address and the screen showed a street-level view of her building. As she zoomed in, she could see Monty, her cat, sitting on a perch in the living room window of her second-floor apartment.

“The issue that I have ultimately is about where you draw the line between taking public photos and zooming in on people’s lives,” Ms. Kalin-Casey said in an interview Thursday on the front steps of the building. “The next step might be seeing books on my shelf. If the government was doing this, people would be outraged.”

Her husband quickly added, “It’s like peeping.”

That’s about right. In fact, I think that accessible video has created voyeuristic and exhibitionistic behavior in lots of people. Sit-coms have given way to reality shows. YouTube allows people to watch others’ performances as well as mistakes. The porn industry, which pioneered many developments in technology (e.g., secure payment), permits people to view others interacting. And Web cams allow people to show their bodies and their bodies interacting with others’ bodies. From this perspective, “Street view” is in part another manifestation of human’s fascination with observing.

So, it’s no surprise that people will Google their neighborhoods, and some will feel concern about what’s they’ll see there. They may not see bodies interacting, but the cat may be visible. And others will be concerned that criminals will take advantage of the technology to stalk them. It’ll be a challenge to separate the reasoned concern from the unfounded fear. Sensibly, Google offers a way to report inappropriate images.

Meanwhile, back at the techology side, as Rob Pegararo noted, this technology has been available previously:

These options are not quite new. Google’s Google Earth program offers its own 3-D flyovers, though without the high resolution of Microsoft’s service. Amazon’s A9 search site provided a sidewalk-view option years ago, and Microsoft has a version of that concept tucked away on a corner of its own site (http://preview.local.live.com).

So, what will arise next? Will we, like in Eames’ “Powers of 10,” soon be able to use Google to zoom in on people caught on film, clicking enough times that we can see the DNA of a random individual who happens to have been sitting in the sanctity of his home watching a porn flick?

Out here in my neighborhood, there is little threat. We don’t even get much satellite resolution on Google maps. So, there’s two reasons you won’t be able to see me sun-bathing, and only one of those reasons is that I’m a mole who hides from the sun.

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Filed under Civil rights, Neighborhood, News, Notes and comments, Technology

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