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RETURN ON TECHNOLOGY: Are Google photos an invasion of your privacy?

May 12, 2008

There it was, by golly. I'm a tourist as much as the next guy, so of course one of the first things I did was look up my own house on Google Street View. And there it was. Sometime in the past several months, a car with a Google cameraman in it drove through my neighborhood taking shots every few yards. I could "fly" through the whole area, albeit rather jerkily. All the overhead shots on Google, all the satellite photos, maps and even the wonders of Google Earth, where you can "fly" through the Grand Canyon, didn't compare with seeing my house online, where I can drive around it from my desktop. My humble abode is now digitized in the massive databases of Google.

Since early 2007, Google has been busily driving around America's biggest cities, photographing all the streets from ground level with specially equipped cars that have roof-mounted panoramic cameras. It first put San Francisco, Denver, Los Angeles, New York and Miami online, then moved on to some three dozen other cities, including Indianapolis. If you go to Google Maps (www.maps.google.com), you'll see little camera icons for all the places Google has Street View available. Google has added parts of Canada, Australia, Italy, Switzerland and Japan. Eventually, it says, it wants to have you-arethere views of the whole world.

It's fascinating to be able to drive the Golden Gate Bridge or Harlem without leaving your desk. But not a few commentators are concerned about where this is going. The U.S. military was one of the first to react. A Google car drove through Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, snapping pictures as it went.

Base security must not have been worried. The fort is easily available to civilians, the military gives away a detailed map of the base, and it's already shown on the Google satellite shots of the area. The base has significant historical importance, with several buildings from different eras. There is even a medical museum on the grounds. And the car's driver received permission to shoot photos, although apparently in violation of Google's policies. Still, the U.S. Northern Command asked Google to take down the photos, and it did.

Other Google Street View photos have become famous for making permanent some embarrassing but fleeting moments in people's lives. The photos are composites, so occasionally somebody's head will vanish or their body distort. There are well-known photos on Street View of a young man climbing a fence, a woman leaning over and showing her derriere to the amusement of two male bystanders, a man entering an adult bookstore, and topless girls sunbathing. People can be seen through their windows at home.

One couple has actually sued Google for showing their house on Street View. Aaron and Christine Boring of Pittsburgh bought what they say is an expensive home in the suburbs, and when a Google representative came along taking pictures for Street View, the Borings contend the driver actually drove into their access road. They say the photos now endanger their home's value. Google denies that the couple have much of a point, but says there is a process for requesting that a home be removed from Street View.

So is Google Street View an invasion of privacy, or a valuable tool? Google is careful to stick to the public roads, so it's tough to make a good case for privacy, but there's a permanence dimension to privacy, too. If Google's car happens by when your delivery van is parked in a fire lane while the driver races into a store for a bottled water, that image is now permanent and available to everybody: law enforcement, your customers and your competitors. And it's available almost forever. If your storefront is a little shabby and you invest to have it fixed up but Google catches it in the "before" state, that's what your prospective customers will see until Google decides to update its database.

And on the other side of the ledger, I just can't see Street View as much of a business tool. I use maps to get around. As with every other piece of new technology, I ask myself, "What can you do with this tomorrow that you can't do today?" Most of the time, the answer is, "Not much."

That's the case here, too. I suppose it might be helpful for those who navigate solely by landmark, but I suspect most of us do just fine with addresses and maps. I've tried hard to find business justification for Street View. I truly have. I like it, and it's fun. But it's not all that helpful to earning my living. My advice is to have a good time zooming around Denver and Las Vegas, but just be happy the service is free.



Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. Listen to his column via podcast at www.ibj.com. He can be reached at timaltom@sbcglobal.net. Find his blog at usabilitynome.blogspot.com.
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