Saturday, April 04, 2009

The roving eye of Google

Google is virtually (pun intended) everywhere these days. As they continue on their quest to map the world, the folks at Google have clearly approached, if not crossed, the boundaries separating the world's need/right to information and individual privacy.

The Brave New World has definitely arrived. (GW)

Google snapper sent packing

LONDON - You're never far from a camera in Britain, a country that has accepted the presence of millions of surveillance cameras on its streets, shopping centers and public spaces.

But for the villagers of Broughton in southern England, the roving eye of Google was one camera too many.

A gaggle of residents in the affluent hamlet formed a human chain to turn away a car shooting images for Google Street View, the popular service that allows Internet users to see high-quality photos of houses and streets around the world.

Broughton's tiny victory for people power is the latest sign of concern about the US Internet juggernaut's collection of vast amounts of data, from satellite photos on Google Earth to the searches performed by Internet users and the shopping habits of e-mail users.

"I was upstairs when I spotted the camera car driving down the lane," villager Paul Jacobs told the Times of London newspaper. "My immediate reaction was anger: How dare anyone take a photograph of my home without my consent?"

Jacobs quickly rounded up his neighbors, who blocked the road and forced the car to retreat.

The local police force confirmed it had been called to the village Wednesday by "reports of a dispute between a crowd of people and a Google Street View contractor."

"They felt his presence was an intrusion of their privacy," Thames Valley Police said in a statement sent yesterday to the Associated Press. "When police arrived at the scene, the car had moved on."

Street View debuted in the United States in 2007 and has since spread to countries including France, Italy, Spain, Australia, and Japan. It launched in Britain last month, sparking a debate about freedom of information and the right to privacy.

Street View has sparked concern elsewhere as well. In the United States, Google removed images of shelters for battered women.

In the Netherlands, concerns have been raised about the safety of anyone trying to photograph Amsterdam's notorious Red Light district.

So far, Google's images stop just outside the district.

In Italy, consumer groups have raised a variety of concerns and asked Google to put visual and sound warnings on the cars that take its Street View pictures.

"People feel sensitive about their local area, about their home, and digitization in great detail of those images threatens a great many people," said Simon Davies of London-based watchdog Privacy International.

For months, Google's Street View vehicle - a car with a pole-mounted revolving camera protruding from the top - has been roaming the streets of Britain, capturing 360-degree images of streets, and the people on them.

Since the service launched, millions of Britons have gone online to look at their own houses or landmarks like the Houses of Parliament. But some government buildings and the area around the prime minister's Downing Street home have been removed.

Google says the technology is legal, useful and non-intrusive. To preserve privacy, individuals' faces and car license plates are obscured by pixelation.

"All the information on Street View is the same as you would find on a property website or walking down the street yourself," said Google spokesman Anthony House.

But, he added, "it's a new technology and so I think it is understandable that people will be unhappy with it."


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