Street-scene photographs added to Google Maps and Earth last week capture passers-by in delicate situations and have privacy advocates accusing the world’s most popular Internet search firm of breaking its “Don’t be Evil” code.
Google’s “Street View” feature weaves photographs into seamless panoramas of parts of San Francisco, New York, Las Vegas, Denver, Miami, and renowned technology Mecca Silicon Valley in northern California.
“With Street View users can virtually walk the streets of a city, check out a restaurant before arriving, and even zoom in on bus stops and street signs to make travel plans,” Google said on its website.
Privacy advocates counter that it also provides offensively candid glimpses of people unwittingly photographed while going about their daily lives.
Pictures show what appears to be men urinating streetside. Young women are pictured in skimpy swimsuits sunbathing near Stanford University, the California alma mater of Google’s founders.
There is a picture of a man climbing a home’s security gate, hopefully without criminal intent. People are pictured going into a pornography shop.
A couple can be seen embracing on a sidewalk while another couple gets intimate on a bus stop bench. A homeless man pictured sitting with his dog on a street corner has reportedly died since the photograph was taken.
Technology-centric Wired Magazine is asking online readers to vote for “the best inadvertent urban snapshots … be they citizens flaunting the laws or hot dog vendors rocking a sweet style.” It is legal to photograph people in public places in the United States.
“What Google does is not illegal, but irresponsible,” said Rebecca Jeschke of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a US non-profit group dedicated to defending Internet freedom and privacy.
“Google Street View technology has been an intrusion of privacy to many people captured in their pictures. They could have waited until they developed technology that would allow them to obscure peoples’ faces.” Miami abortion clinic director Elaine Diamond is troubled by a Google Maps picture showing protesters outside the facility.
“I wish they would replace it,” Diamond said. “I couldn’t contact them. I tried quickly. It’s not easy.” Women visiting abortion clinics are under enough stress without adding fears that Google Maps might feature pictures of them entering or leaving the facilities, Diamond said.
Operators of places such as drug, alcohol or sexual health clinics worry about protecting their clients from the stigma of being pictured in Street View.
Google said it worked with shelters for battered women and children to avoid photographs endangering their visitors.
“Everyone expects a certain level of anonymity as they move about their daily lives,” EFF attorney Kevin Bankston told AFP.
Google says photographs are taken down or replaced in response to complaints.
“Street View only features imagery taken on public property,” the Mountain View, California-based Internet titan said in its defense.
“This imagery is no different from what any person can readily capture or see walking down the street.” Googe’s Street View has fans among those eager to explore places as an adjunct or replacement to travel.
Google used a fleet of vans equipped with special cameras to amass 360-degree imagery of major US cities during the past several months and said it planned
Google said it intends to update the images regularly.
“How long until this becomes live video?” technology entrepreneur and author John Batelle asked rhetorically.