Google’s right down your street

The big digital launch in the UK this week has to be the arrival (at last!) of Google’s Street View service for UK towns. This has resulted in many lost hours of business productivity as people check out where they live in the new service; and a good deal of media activity fretting about the privacy aspect.

If you don’t know what the Street View function is, then simply put: it’s photographs taken from a car at street level and then made available through Google Earth, so you can see an area as if you were driving through it rather than from the traditional overhead satellite shots previously available. Google have spent months driving specially equiped vehicles around the streets of London, Edinburgh, Belfast and 22 other cities around the UK, each with a camera mounted to the roof able to take 360 degree photos every few feet.

It’s a mammoth undertaking, and you can’t help but wonder why Google are investing so much time and money carrying it out. It’s interesting from a personal point of view (“Can I see my house? Am I in any of the shots?”) and could constitute a fascinating view of life on the streets of early 21st century Britain for future anthropologists, but beyond that you have to wonder … why bother? In terms of monetarising it I suppose that it opens up a whole new dimension (literally) for services providing directions, and for businesses wanting to be able to guide customers to their front door.

But can anything really warrant the investment – and the backlash in the media that it has produced?

You can’t have missed the stories in newspapers including the Daily Mail, and even on television with the BBC’s Newsnight programme trying its best to whip up some outrage on the issue midweek. The chief area of concern among people objecting to Street View is the privacy aspect – the risk of being caught on camera doing something less that savoury.

For example, the Daily Mail articles reproduce stills of a man emerging from a Soho sex shop; police officers making an arrest in Camden; a Christmas reveler throwing up in the street as his main adorned by reindeer antlers watched on; an unimpressed lorry driver giving the Google cameras the V sign; and student party goers dressed in fancy dress and traffic cones to name but a few.

However, the prospect of invasion of privacy had already been raised last year, and Google promised to use face recognition technology to blur out recognisable features in the pictures with 99.99% accuracy – and they have delivered, with the humorous side effect that even the faces of models in billboards (or the face of Bobby Sands in a Belfast mural) are dutifully blurred out.

Even so, some images are still left recognisable, and Google has been busy in the hours since launch going around pulling any offending photos off the service (although a little haphazard in parts, with images immediately before and after the removed photo still available to show the same scene albeit a little further away.

There’s talk of renewed legal action: although the Information Commissioner’s Office ruled in 2008 that the service did not breach privacy, campaigners are gearing up to appeal with Privacy International quoted as saying “I think there is something of a test case in this. We are arguing that a line has to be drawn to empower the individual to make a conscious decision whether to allow his or her images on to such a system.”

Despite the fact that I’m usually the first person to jump up and down about privacy issues from both the public and private sectors, I find it very hard to actually get agitated about this service which strikes me as 99% harmless. Okay, there are certainly some risks – getting snapped emerging from a sex shop is certainly not the kind of thing on anyone’s wish list – but it seems strange to be quite as animated about a few street snaps given that in the UK we know we’re under almost constant surveillance the minute we step outside the door, though CCTV cameras, shop security cameras, cameras on buses and trains and everywhere in between, not to mention the number of ordinary people snapping away with phone cams that means that – quite literally – anything you do in the open you should expect to be potentially made public.

Shops and credit card companies can tell your lifestyle, from what you eat to where you travel to the flights you take. Your employer is doubtless listening in to your every call and internet click – and if they’re not then the government soon will be under plans to force ISPs and telecoms companies to record details of all internet activity, emails and telephone calls. There are even new suggestions to have a database of everyone’s overseas destinations , presumably so that a recent trip to a terrorist hot spot can get you put under even greater surveillance when you get home to ensure you’re no risk to society.

Privacy is really a rather quaint old fashioned notion, and to suddenly become all exercised about it before of Google’s fun Street View utility seems a particularly bizarre inverted priority.

Then again, if Google’s Street View reminds people about the complete lack of privacy they should expect in the UK these days, perhaps Google are doing us all a big favour in jump starting some calls for sanity and some protection against the corporate and public sector snoopers.

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