Google Street View: a cavalcade of reactions, gag pix, paranoid rants

Here's a roundup of some of the many responses to last week's posts about Google's newly launched "street view" zoom feature.

  • In a post on the Freakonomics blog, the Google project manager for Street View (actually, all of Google Maps, but that includes Street View) speaks out. His name is Stephen Chau. Link. I have no doubt that he is an exceedingly charming and intelligent guy, but he kind of sounds like a soundbite robot here (ah, the tell-tale signs of an email/IM/publicist-monitored interview). Among the issues Mr. Chau addresses: paranoid speculation about those purported would-be-JFK-bombers having used Google Earth (I bet they used pencils, gasoline, and tape, too — let's all be scared of that stuff, while we're at it).
  • Here's a blog post with six tips on how to find cool shit on Street View, like girls' buttcracks or cats in windows. The internet is full of wonders. Link. Wait, here's another (thanks justin). More finds here, in addition to the other "google street view gems" sites I've blogged before.

  • On Sunday, I asked on this blog:

    Would we feel differently about street-level image mapping if it were done by a government agency? The FBI? CIA? NSA? DHS?

    Internet Wise Man Kevin Kelly replies in the form of a question, as is his zen-master way:

    Here's a question I've not seen addressed yet:

    What is the difference between posting a picture of people on a public street on Google Street View or on Flickr? Let's say it's the same image posted on both, and it captures someone late for work, or bending over and showing their underpants. Why is one cause for yawns and the other excitement?

    BB reader Christopher says,

    Here's a thought… could they not just add an ice cream van type audible warning to the google van that can be played whenever they're taking photos? Then, whenever you hear those soothing google van chimes you can dive for cover, obscure your number plates and whip the curtains shut. Unless of course it's just an ice cream van, then you'll miss out on all that popsicle lookalike amusement.

  • Andrew Iverson replied,

    I guess i'm in a small group, i wish they would cover more than
    just those cities, but i live in a very small town (River Falls, WI)
    that on google maps is in very bad resolution. I would worry more if
    the street views were live or updated often, but since it's pretty
    much a one time thing, i'm not too worried.

  • Ivy Mike says,

    I think you'll like this blog post, where I ask my readers for their best "Google van self-portraits." I was thinking, the van must have have taken photos of itself! "Google van" self-portraits, if you will. Here's the best one I could find so far, but it's a little obscured by a logo. There must be better Google van self-portraits out there: please post your finds in the comments!

  • Jon Frush says (and blogs)

    With all the talk going on about the images Google is posting with their Street View feature and personal privacy isn't it time to look at what rights they really have?

    Since all of these pictures are taken on the street which is considered a public place people have little recourse on what is being shown unless you are able to see in the window.

    "Members of the public have a very
    limited scope of privacy rights when
    they are in public places. Basically,
    anyone can be photographed without
    their consent except when they have
    secluded themselves in places where
    they have a reasonable expectation of
    privacy such as dressing rooms, restrooms,
    medical facilities, and inside
    their homes."

  • Marcus says,

    Google is socialising the cost of privacy protection by choosing an opt-out approach rather than opt-in or an expensive internal review of the collected data. On the other hand, it is privatizing the public data and any profit derived from that. It is thus no less evil than other corporations, and considerably more evil than the NSA or CIA, who at least in principle can be held accountable as public institutions.

  • Michael Rasmussen says,

    It feels creepy. Yeah, I agree. When you go out in public the "public" is confined to the public that's also there. So public was always limited. Google Street View destroys that limit. The woman getting into her car on the street can look around the street and see who's there. The woman can't see who's watching her through Street View. I can go to the health clinic, lawyer's office, fetish store or anywhere else with the relative anonymity of being a soon to be forgotten stranger. Not after Google Street View, or the security camera, records the event. I can feel some comfort that the security camera recording will, most likely, be forgotten by the worker and erased after X days if no event of interest was taking place while I was there. Google Street View is going to make that memory available to anyone. And I can't look around to see who's watching. Damn right it's creepy.

  • Mikel Maron says,

    At Where Camp last weekend (post Where 2.0 unconference for map geeks), we stayed up too late drinking beer and eating bad frozen food while hacking on Google Street View.

    Highlight outcomes were scripts to automatically insert Google Street View panoramas into (for real), and GHATS "fixes Google Street View privacy by adding hats and moustaches to every face" (which is fake, but an idea for the taking if Google continues to feel the heat over street view). Street View is slowly but surely being completely cracked. Link.

  • Brian Klug says, and blogs,

    About three weeks ago, I was driving north on 101 to work at PBwiki. There was a van driving by and I saw what looked like a large black cargo container on it. Except it had a large cylinder on top. It looked like a GIANT CAMERA mounted on the roof, aimed at the sky. I thought, "Yeah, Brian, It's a giant camera on top of a van."

    Now I just saw William's photos of the Google van. LOL. Turns out the thing on top was a camera after all. Well, a panoramic assembly of normal-sized cameras arranged in a shape that just so happens to look like a giant camera. Is this an engineering joke on behalf of Google? Or maybe it is a disguise: "Nobody will think were hiding cameras in 60x-sized replica of a camera."

    René Blais says,

    There's one issue I haven't seen addressed in regards to google street view. While indeed it is perfectly legal to take pictures of anyone in a public place – it is not legal to use those photos for a commercial purpose unless the subject has signed a release. I'm only an amateur photographer, and no kind of lawyer at all, but as I understand it, the person IN the shot is the one who is considered to own the rights to all commercial applications of the photo. From everything I've read, the laws are roughly the same in both the US and Canada. Of course the rules are differant if the photo is considered journalistic in nature.

    While google isn't really selling it's street view pictures, it IS profiting by them via it's ads, which would seem to qualify as a commercial application. I rather suspect that they'd have a hard time getting a judge to consider it to be journalistic.

    Many more of you wrote in, and a sample of your comments are after the jump. As always, these opinions do not neccesarily reflect my own, or those of my co-editors on BoingBoing.

  • Ripley says,

    All the discussion on what our privacy rights are in law is interesting, but people should recognize that what's going on here is beyond law, and reveals gaping holes in law.

    Folks seem to grasp that pretty readily when it's copyright law, but it's just as true for privacy.

    In the same way that law doesn't adequately capture what's important about the AACS code, law doesn't really help us understand what's problematic about google allowing us to watch each other remotely.

    Law here has been partly shaped by what was physically possible – we didn't need to have laws about being watched and recorded remotely by people we can't see who may be doing it for fun or profit (as your image of the woman in her car suggests – think of the pornographic potential) or for the government.

    That's why taking photographs up people's skirts with a tiny, hidden camera was not illegal – it used to be impossible to do it. In California we had to pass a specific law making that illegal, because there was not enough historical concern with that issue for courts to be able to rely on that in defining privacy rights.

    So falling back on what our "rights" are under law is just not going to get us very far.

    Also, it's important to ask ask "what if the CIA were doing it" especially because there is nothing stopping them from using the service now, and of course they will. So might health insurance agencies, your boss, stalkers you know, stalkers you don't know, parents of people you are dating, etc etc etc. Alongside all the people/groups who might be unsympathetic to you and take images of you out of context for their own purposes, we should also be concerned about the lack of belief that we have any rights not specifically defined by law. Folks on boingboing (and posting to it) seem pretty serious about that when it has to do with copyright, let's not roll over on privacy, here!

  • MutantRob says,

    I could state that what makes Google Street View so damn creepy is that it removes time and space from the boundary of public and private…. I could go on for numerous examples, but Mary Kalin-Casey picked up on that right away.

    No, what else is creepy is that it removes context. A fleeting moment where you are dropping your daughter off to high school and she kisses you goodbye looks sleazy because her thing is showing: for somebody else, a prostitute is getting in the car.

    Or maybe some random stranger you chat with for a minute or two while waiting for the bus is a serial killer, and (perhaps with the aid of software) people find a picture of *you* talking to him on Street View. People will wonder who you are: some friend or even accomplice of him? What if some future version of Street View had archives of 24-hour footage, and people tried to read your lips and decipher an innocuous conversation? What if, because of the publicity, the authorities wanted to talk to you?

    Take the picture of George Bush with a turkey as another example. Since we know the context of the picture, and because it's somebody people like to poke fun at, it's amusing. But imagine if the people in that photo were anonymous, random folk (like yourself), and that nobody in the photo was even aware that from a certain angle, it would look like what it does. And imagine the photo was on a random street corner from Street View. Would it be so amusing? Would not people wonder if the fellow there *was* doing something he should have with that turkey? Take the Internet's ability to turn people into overnight heroes or villains….

  • Ballookey says,

    If something like Google Street View were done by a government agency, we'd never be able to see it, have any idea of it's scope, or even probably know it exists. In the highly unlikely event that we found out about it, we'd never be able to trust the government if they told us "we only take images from the street of things that are viewable from the street and so therefore right to privacy doesn't come in to play".

    I don't have a problem with Google Street View because we all can see it and do exactly what we're doing: Check on ourselves, our haunts, and areas of interest to see what exactly is going on.

    The transparency may not be the only issue, but it's the one that makes all the difference to me.

  • Keith Blackwell says,

    I'd like to add that the greatest false assumption that I see among those who complain about this type of thing, and among the tinfoil-hat set, is that they are guaranteed anonymity 24/7 in public places. This is not the case. If you're out in public, your being in public is public knowledge and is not a protected secret. Likewise, if your cat is visible through a window on a street, it is visible to the public and not a protected secret. If you don't want your cat to be seen from the street, draw your curtains. If you don't want the world to know that you're sitting on your ass in a park when you should be working, don't sit on your ass in a park when you should be working, or at least wear a disguise!

  • Robin Diane Goldstein says,

    i too have been 'troubled' by Google Street View in a way that other modern technological 'intrusions' into our lives have not bothered me… in particular, i've been worried by, what appears to be, a generally accepted notion that the US courts have said its perfectly legal for the police to conduct survivance, and that we have no expectation of privacy, in a public place…

    i'm not so sure its perfectly legal, and i'm not so sure there won't be litigation…

    there is a fundamental difference between the need for law enforcement to be able to observe a public space, and the world-wide public display (and potential humiliation) of those who have not consented to have their photographs taken…

    there is a reason that the tv networks don't show the faces of people they can't get a release from… from leno to COPS, you'll see that the faces of people who haven't signed a release are blurred out in order to avoid the potential liability that might come from public embarrassment… and those obese folks who are shown whenever there's a report on overweight americans? why do we only see them from the neck down? because under the law there is a need to balance rights… no right is absolute… (there's no right to shout "fire" in a crowded theater, etc.)… and these folks aren't celebrities…

    the image that brought it home for me is the picture of the young woman, bending over putting something into the front seat of her car (package? child?) and you can see her thong… its in one of the links in your post… this is clearly a violation of this woman's privacy… she might have assumed the risk that one or two folks walking by might catch a quick, accidental glimpse, but that's very different from taking that image and then posting it for, literally, the world to see…

    in addition, in the UK, where CCTV cameras are widely used, there are *warnings* that say the area is under surveillance… in other words, you have the right to 'opt out' before your image is taken… under google's system, you can only opt out -afterwards-.

    i'm troubled that here in the US, people are so willing to give up their privacy… for the government… for commerce… it is something precious and at the core of a healthy democracy… knowing that you may be photographed, without your knowledge or permission, and that you have find that photograph posted across the world will have a chilling effect on behavior.
    this seems, to me, another example of "we have cool technology… why not use it"

    i'm wondering if its time for google to retain a full-time ethics team to look at the social responsibility inherent in the things they do… i signed up for a gmail account, so i know my private details are running through google's computers… i didn't sign up to have them take pictures of me, my home and my neighborhood, and post them on the internet.

    in the end, we shouldn't have to "opt out"… they should be required to get our permission if we want to "opt in"…

  • Anonymous says,

    With respect to an earlier reader comment that Google Streetview has no practical use, what about real estate? There are dozens of open houses I wouldn't have bothered to waste my time (and my agent's time) visiting if I could have just hopped on Google and viewed the exterior, surroundings, and street/court.

    Plus, there's just the wonder of being able to virtually drive down a scenic highway, even if you are physically incapacitated (or simply too young) to drive.

    …not that there aren't also creepy aspects to it. But it's not accurate to say there are no useful purposes it can be put to.

  • Nick says,

    Right now there's a rash of spooky images being unveiled, but it won't last for long, because these snapshots won't be frequently updated (or so we hope). After all, buildings don't change much in appearance over a few days, and it's economically unfeasible to drive all those streets all the time.
    If it were really live though, it would be much creepier at first if the NSA were doing it, but much more dangerous public. We're freaked out by the idea of strangers making an effort to watch us. But ultimately the participatory panopticon has more opportunities for oppression. With google's facial recognition software added on, rabid fans, employers, and yes, the CIA, could scan a neighborhood for anyone to keep tabs on them.

    Tom says,

    One of your comment writers mentioned that if we find Google Street View creepy, we might need to look beyond our present legal privacy rights. So the question is, what new legal privacy rights should we be seeking?

    I think we need to consider how automation can create collective privacy problems that are greater than the sum of their parts.

    For example, in the U.S. you've no fourth amendment right that protects the police from viewing the phone numbers that you've dialed. (There are other rules that require oversight for police access to this information, but they are not the 4th amendment.) The reasoning is that the phone company is a third party, they know what numbers you've dialed, and they might reasonably tell the police.

    We might expect, under this standard, that the phone company might tell the police about the phone numbers dialed by someone who was suspected of a crime, or someone that the police asked about. However, the idea that the phone company would always tell the police about every phone number that everyone ever dialed, so that the police could construct a database of this information, and a map of the interconnections between people in the country… Well, this is an entirely different expectation, and it may be reasonable to expect that this is not going on. I think (and this has never been considered by a court) that you might have a legitimate 4th amendment argument about that.

    Google Street View presents a similar problem. Generally speaking, someone outside might have a camera. If you are outside and you do something, its possible that someone could take your picture. This isn't usually a problem and doesn't rise to a legal privacy issue. Its less likely that said picture would be published, but its also possible. I think the privacy issues there are less clear. However, Google Street View is fundamentally different than those two scenarios. In this case, a picture of every location in the city is taken, and published. We don't yet know how often these pictures will be updated.

    Is it reasonable to expect that pictures of every location will always be taken and published all of the time? I think thats an entirely different concept, from a privacy perspective, than the idea that an individual location could be photographed rarely. The fact that we're comfortable with the rare, individual photograph, and we don't feel we should have a legal privacy right that prevents that photograph from being taken or even published should not mean that we must accept this new scenario. The sum is greater than the parts, and has a greater impact in on our privacy.

    Previous BB posts on Google Street View:

  • Google Street View has many uses, like finding dead people?
  • NYT on BB on Google Street View
  • Google Maps is spying on my cat, says freaked out BB reader
  • Google Maps zoom: here's the device and vehicle behind it
  • Google Maps zoom feature inspires neologism
  • Google Maps Zoom and kitty on perch: the inevitable LOLcatting