July 16, 2008

Full Frontal View of Your House Now on Google Maps: To Some, It’s Invasive; to Others, It’s a Boon

By Stephen T. Watson, The Buffalo News, N.Y.

Jul. 16--Google Maps has a new feature on its site that makes techies happy but worries others.

Type in a street address and the powerful Web search engine pinpoints the location, marks it and zooms in on that spot -- and offers a photo of the location.

Buffalo Niagara was one of 37 metropolitan areas added to Street View last month.

The Street View program helps in situations where it's useful to see what you're trying to find, such as when searching for an unfamiliar restaurant or when house hunting.

"For me, personally, it's quite amazing. It solves an age-old problem: How do you get there, and how do you know what it looks like?" said Kevin Lim, a University at Buffalo doctoral student who writes about technology trends on a blog, theory. isthereason. com.

But while local technology denizens greeted it enthusiastically, critics are raising privacy concerns about Street View.

They warn that Google's cameras could capture people leaving an abortion clinic, a hospital or an adult bookstore.

Google insists it is on firm legal ground because its camera cars were on public roadways when they took the photos in Buffalo and other communities.

"We obviously take privacy very seriously," spokeswoman Elaine Filadelfo said.

But already, a number of Web sites have popped up to share photos pulled from Street View of people caught in bizarre or embarrassing situations.

Privacy advocates say that -- as with any innovation -- people need to better balance the benefits of the new technology with the loss of privacy it brings.

"When we used to walk down the street, it wasn't recorded for posterity, necessarily," said Pam Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum. "I would certainly like to see people have more rights to control their image."

Google Maps has always provided a bird's-eye view of the desired address and the surrounding streets.

But with Street View, users can pull up a photo showing what's at the address, spin the image around 360 degrees and move up and down the street or to an entirely different location.

To get the photos, Google sent cars with roof-mounted cameras to cities around the country, with the cameras automatically taking pictures from every possible angle.

Street View launched last May in New York, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Denver and Miami.

Buffalo and 36 other communities, including Rochester and Syracuse, were added in June.

"Pretty wild, my street is on there. It's really like standing in the middle of my street and looking at my house, with decent clarity. Kind of weird, but cool nonetheless," one person wrote on the Buffalo Sabres online message board under the comment thread "Buffalo Added To Google Street View."

The Google spokeswoman would only say that the photos are taken a few months to a year before Street View is activated in a community.

Visitors to local Web sites guess -- based on what they saw in the photos of their own houses -- that the Google cameras were here sometime in 2007.

In Erie County, Street View extends south to Milestrip Road in Hamburg and Orchard Park; east to Girdle and Schwartz roads in Elma and Lancaster and Strickler Road in Clarence; and north to Tonawanda Creek.

However, whole sections of West Seneca, the Town of Tonawanda and Amherst aren't covered, and only the North Tonawanda area is on Street View in Niagara County.

While some tech junkies have complained about the quality of Google's Street View imagery, users in this area are glad that Street View has arrived.

"This is very cool, but just a little creepy. I could [practically] see in my own windows! I wish [it was] updated so that I coul[d] get pix of all the people who park illegally on my street!!!!!" one user wrote on the Buffalo Rising Web site.

Lim, the local blogger, had used Street View even before it came to this area, when he was looking for a particular restaurant on a visit to San Francisco.

"The map view and the satellite [view from programs like Google Earth] can only tell you so much. Nothing beats being on the ground," Lim said.

Ken Fujiuchi, Buffalo State College's emerging technologies librarian, has used it while he looks for a new place to rent.

"For the apartment hunting it's been very useful," Fujiuchi said. "It gives you an idea of what the neighborhood is like."

One area real estate executive, Jed Carrol, has used Google Maps for a couple of years, and jumped at the chance to add the panoramic Street View photos.

Now, visitors to his site can click on a map of the area, look for homes for sale in the neighborhood they like and find the Street View picture of America's Choice properties.

"It helps us because we have an educated consumer. They're actually driving streets now, from their computer," said Carrol, chief executive officer of America's Choice, which provides marketing support to doit- yourself sellers, and 2.5 Percent Real Estate Direct, which offers services of a traditional real estate firm.

While Street View has its fans, some privacy advocates are objecting that Google's cameras have caught people in compromising positions.

"What if you're coming out of a building that hosts [Alcoholics Anonymous] meetings all day?" asked Rebecca Jeschke, a spokeswoman for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "People are used to a certain amount of anonymity in their life. These new mapping tools and database tools are capable of creating quite a comprehensive picture of your life."

Bloggers and other users have browsed through the the Street View photos from different cities and posted the most interesting and embarrassing ones on Web sites such as streetviewgallery. c o r a n k . c o m and www.gstreetsightings.com . The sites have photos of a guy sitting on a bench who appears to be picking his nose, a woman sitting in a car whose thong underwear is exposed and a guy walking outside an adult bookstore. Some of these images have since been removed from Google Maps Street View.

In Buffalo, a quick jaunt through the photos posted on Street View didn't find anything remotely so embarrassing.

A few people were caught walking around the region, including Eileen Saracino, a teacher's aide at the Stanley G. Falk School who lives in Parkside.

She found out about the photo from her son, David, who had looked up their house on Street View and saw her in the image.

"When he brought it up, there I was," Saracino said.

She said she doesn't believe it's an invasion of her privacy, because the photo doesn't show her face. But she does wonder whether the fact that she and her house are shown in an online photo is a security issue.

Buffalo State's Fujiuchi, for one, said he understands the concerns but said privacy as a concept in the digital world has become "more ambiguous."

However, Jeschke and other privacy advocates argue strongly that Google is intruding on people's privacy because they didn't know that Google took and posted their pictures.

Googleresponds by noting that what the company is doing is legal because the photos were taken from a public street.

Google provides a mechanism through which people who are concerned about a photo can ask that it be taken down.

And Google has started blurring the faces of people who could be identified in the Street View photos, Filadelfo said.

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