July 14, 2008

Word on the Street: Big Brother’s Coming to a Town Near You

By Murdo MacLeod

BE WARNED: Big Brother is about to get even bigger - and he's coming to a street near you. The latest hi-tech eye on our lives is Google's new Street View. Following on from the ground-breaking Google Earth and Google Maps software, the system allows users to zoom in on satellite images from around the world and pick out individual houses, cars and garden furniture.

US tax inspectors have used the software to catch out individuals building swimming pools and conservatories, which their declared incomes would suggest they are too poor to afford. And now similar images and information will soon be online in Britain.

Police officers in Lothian and Borders, and Strathclyde forces have already written memos asking permission to install the software to aid them in getting about and plotting the patterns of incidents.

Street View will allow computer-users to see pictures of individual streets in addition to simply zooming in on overhead images of them. The system could be a boon for tourists, property buyers and detectives, among others, who will be able to check out a street in advance rather than relying on vague directions.

Google's modified cars, with cameras on the roofs to take the 360 images, have already been in Edinburgh, and Street View will be available for the UK this autumn, claims the company.

Its imminent introduction of Street View has prompted the information commissioner for England to warn Google that it may have to completely remove or blur out images of individuals in its Street View software. The commissioner has warned that merely pixelating out the faces of passers-by in images may not be enough to preserve their privacy.

A spokeswoman said: "There is a risk that Street View could identify individuals alongside their place of work or places they are visiting. Identifying an individual outside some premises, for instance health clinics and hospitals, could raise serious privacy issues. For this reason, we would expect Google to take measures to ensure privacy rights are not infringed, for example blurring all images of individuals to ensure privacy rights are maintained. We are contacting Google to discuss the issue in further detail."

A spokeswoman for Google said that the company would act within the law and pointed out that taking photographs on public property was fully legal.

She added: "We have a number of safeguards to guard privacy. There is a button which will allow you to flag up a picture you are concerned about and have it edited to protect privacy."

Images seen in America have included men leaving strip clubs, sunbathers in their bikinis and parents striking children.

Google has a policy of not telling when their camera vehicles will be in a given area in order to prevent locals engaging in stunts which might interfere with the accuracy of the pictures. The company has removed photos of domestic violence shelters in order to protect their secrecy.

In addition, the Pentagon has banned Google from publishing Street View content of US military bases.

The software giant has grown from being a minor internet start- up into a behemoth of the web age, rivalling even Microsoft for dominance of the cyber-world.

The firm developed from a search engine site, which used a complex and highly secret set of mathematical formulae to figure out the most relevant pages a surfer might be looking for. The company made money by hosting a small number of ads on search result pages.

Getting to the top of the list of Google hits can make the difference between making millions and going bankrupt. A whole industry has grown up involving IT and maths experts trying to second-guess the secret Google search engine formula and get their sites to the top of the page.

Last year, Scotland's tourism body VisitScotland invited firms to bid for a GBP 300,000, three-year contract to get the country to the top of internet searches.

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