No matter how many times Google makes me fear that they might be killing off innovation in startups or using the power of their search engine to become a hegemony, I cannot deny that their web services are truly path-breaking. Their latest offering – Streetview – is a layer that you can click and turn on in Google Maps that gives you pictures of the mapped street. The image isn’t static but instead panoramic and you can drag your mouse cursor to get a 360-degree view from a point and even zoom into specific spots to get more details (e.g. store signs, street signs, etc.)
I suggest you first go take a look (if you haven’t already). For e.g. here is a street view in San Francisco and here is one at Times Square in New York City. Note that not all locations in the country are mapped and right now only the main cities have the option enabled. The images were captured by a vehicle that had an “11-sided camera” mounted on the top and this data was either collected by Google or contracted out to Immersive Media [the quality varies depending on who has collected the data].
Now this new feature sparked off a new wave of interest on the web as people were wowed by the cool factor. Naturally everyone looked for their neighborhood and began exploring others to find strange tidbits of urban life across American. Even a Flickr tag/group sprang up showing different screen captures of street views. But as with any mob voyeurism exercise, people soon started getting freaked out by the level of detail captured by Google cameras. Boing Boing rightly asked if such an exercise was taken up by the CIA or NSA, would the public accept it? John Battelle, the guy who wrote the seminal book on Google titled, The Search also wondered whether images would soon be replaced by live video.
These are genuine concerns, do you want to be the guy checking out a girl while the world watches? Or the guy who discreetly tries to enter a pron video store and gets screwgled? Or a girl whose thong is showing? Whatever the moral rules are on that, you have a right to your privacy, right? Or are we getting too paranoid that the world is watching us when in fact, at any given time we are taped by umpteen number of surveillance cameras either on the freeway or the bank or even an innocuous place like the grocery store. But the latter two are private properties so are you justified to be concerned when your actions on the street are captured on film (or chips)?
In a more specific example that Boing Boing brought to attention, a woman in Oakland, California was freaked out when the street view image literally peeked inside her apartment (you can even see her cat). Boing Boing readers thought she is making a fuss and even nicknamed her ‘crazy cat lady’. But she was surprised by the reactions and said:
The question is, where do we draw the line between public and private? Obviously, the picture of Monty isn’t very good, but who’s to say whether tomorrow, Google’s camera’s won’t be a lot better, giving clearer pictures and more detail?…The opposing argument claims that what’s visible from the street is public. By opening my windows for some much-needed light and air, am I granting permission for my living room to be broadcast worldwide? I don’t think I am. I think if I open my windows, my neighbors and passers by might see the cat in the window. That’s substantially different to me than realizing that everyone in the world can potentially see into my home.
She has a point. When do the boundaries of public and private domain intersect and exactly who has (visual) access to your space? You may be fine with your neighbors or even passerbys looking in your home but are you willing to live with the possibility that someone from across the world might be looking in and still worse, you have no idea who that person is? The issue extended beyond blogs when NY Times spoke to her and enquired deeper into her concerns. For the record, she isn’t your typical Luddite and even welcomes this new feature but is concerned about how it will be used:
“The issue that I have ultimately is about where you draw the line between taking public photos and zooming in on people’s lives. The next step might be seeing books on my shelf. If the government was doing this, people would be outraged.”
Opting out of Google Streetview
If you are concerned about an image in your neighborhood, you can request Google to take it off. But such requests will be rare and follow-up will be still painfully slow. Although the law clearly states that people in public spaces can be photographed, you would definitely feel uncomfortable if you noticed someone taking your pictures continuously. Photographers practice a unwritten code of ethics – to always ask a person before shooting their picture. In my experience, most of them do not refuse.
But the question is whether you relinquish some rights when you are in public space and as long as you are not harmed, can you be photographed without your consent. Of course, that depends on what ‘harm’ is. There is another related issue concerning a different topic that I’ll cover later.