07 June 2007

Google's next move

Wired commentator Tony Long notes Google's new Street View, an application launched May 29 that shows you street-level images of major US cities (so far: Denver, Las Vegas, Miami, New York, San Francisco). To accomplish this, Google partnered with ImmersiveMedia, a company that specializes in taking high resolution video while driving along streets; the company then tags the video bits with geographical info. (Till now their main clients have been city planners and the department of defense.)

Long's main complaint is that although privacy on public streets isn't legally protected, Street View is nonetheless a major invasion of the anonymity large city dwellers are used to taking for granted. Google's response to this is a form you can submit to have a particular street view removed; criteria include inappropriate content, invasion of privacy, and personal security concerns. What happens when Google receives a request like this one from an Oakland woman who says Street View clearly shows her cat through her apartment window? Well, it's too early to tell, but odds are they'll be pretty responsive, at least to people like this whose very living spaces are being viewed via Google.

But Long is right to worry about people accidentally being surveilled while leaving an adult store -- or, for that matter, while entering the wrong church, grocery store, or political organization. In the past, city-dwellers who wished to avoid disapproval from their family or community could simply drive across town and do their thing, with relatively little danger of being observed by anyone they knew. Technologies like Street View, though not yet all that useful for casual surveillance, are one of the first steps in dismantling that anonymity. Some more food for thought -- Google has quietly introduced facial searching in its Images search; currently the module just tries to identify which images have faces in them, but it would be foolish to assume Google's not working on true facial recognition, and as I've noted before, if anyone could do this effectively it would be Google. Street-level images combined with facial recognition technology? I don't usually get very exercised about surveillance concerns (I subscribe to the Momus theory of modern privacy) but this creeps me out, just a little.

UPDATE: After generating a huge amount of negative publicity, Google no longer requires photo ID and a sworn statement to get images of individuals removed from Street View, per this Wired blog.