I know that I promised that this blog wouldn’t dissolve into a series of rants. I do, really, intend to keep my word. But, as with the Facebook thing last week, another Internet invention has caused another ridiculous ruckus this week, and I need to vent. I’m sorry about this, I really am. I’ll try harder next time.
So, Google Street View.
As I’m sure you all know, Google launched their Street View feature last week which, basically, allows you to zoom in on a map to see a view of the street as if you were standing there. The title really gives it away, if I’m honest. What this means is you can now virtually stand anywhere in London and virtually see every front door, shop front or tube station virtually.
Ostensibly, this is a rather useful feature. It translates a flat map into an actual, useful street-eye view. Not bad, when you need to get somewhere. I remember when I went to UCL for an interview years ago, and when I came up from Warren Street tube I was complete disorientated. The map print-out I had didn’t bare any resemblance to what I saw in front of me, and besides, I didn’t know which way was north. Now, being a savvy Londoner, I naturally know which way is North merely by the destination on bus fonts, but that’s besides the point. Back then, if I’d had the option to virtually come up out of the tube station before I actually did, I may have made it to my interview on time. But, already, there’s been hundreds of column-inches and blog-pixels spewed out to attack this, frankly rather clever, bit of software. Why?
Why is such a useful feature making so many people so angry? Well, privacy they say. It’s obviously unavoidable that in making this service, Google-cam recorded hundreds of thousands of people going about their daily lives on the streets of the UK. Now, Google used a nifty bit of software to blur-out all these people’s faces, even car number plates to try to maintain a bit of privacy for them, but it hasn’t been entirely successful. Some people are better hidden than others, and for those caught coming out of ‘adult-only’ establishments, such as the chap in the picture on the right, I can understand why they’d be a bit peeved about this going up on the ‘net for the world to see, even though you can’t see his face. These pictures have now been removed as a result of the world’s largest incident of beta-testing. I can understand this.
What I don’t get, though, is why people who have been snapped doing perfectly innocent things, or merely those who live behind front doors that appear on Street View have been complaining so much. Yes, I can now go onto the internet and see that someone with a blurry face whom I have never seen before and therefore have very little chance of recognising is coming out of the Oxford Street branch of Top Shop. I can also take a virtual walk down any residential street and see that a certain door is of a certain color. Big deal. I could do this before, if I so wished, with the magic combination of my own free-will, an oyster card, and the motive power of my legs. And their faces wouldn’t be all blurry.
Really, to me, all Google Street View is is a useful tool for aiding me in getting to places that I have never been to before. I’m sure that there are some people who, out of a lack of better things to do, will surf it looking for stupid pictures like the one I posted here. (I lifted this from a Daily Mail article and didn’t go looking for it myself. Please also be assured that I don’t read the Daily Mail.) Although I admit that this aspect of it is slightly unsavory, I really don’t understand why, now that these pictures have been removed, there’s an issue with the service. It provides nothing that we didn’t have access to before, but merely presents it in a way that is much quicker to access.
Really, I don’t mind people complaining. It’s their right to do so, and it mustn’t be taken away. Again, as I said last week, democracies like ours rely upon it. What irritates me about this is that people are so resistant to innovation, especially when it comes to the internet. When new services arrive, such as this or the ‘New Facebook’, and people complain about them, it gives people who are aginst the who shebang a platform to speak from that they never had before. For instance, I saw a “security expert” (I put him in “”’s because, as far as I can tell, his only claim to expert status is that he used to present a TV programme called ‘How Safe is Your House’) on the BBC news the other day talking about how the whole enterprise of Google Maps and Google Earth is inherently unsafe becasue the ’satellite view’ allows burglars to spot potential targets and plan escape routes. Of course not being an expert and therefore being on a level with this guy, is this not something that they did before, but merely by going there? I agree that it has probably made the process easier for them, for instance by using a satellite snapshot of a swimming pool as an indicator of potential wealth, but then it’s also made it alot easier for the rest of us law-abiding folk to find a better way to cycle to college.
In my uninformed opinion, the internet is an inherently open thing. This means that whatever you put on there is bound to be used, by someone somewhere, for purposes that you did not intend. I understand that this means that you have to be careful with what you show. Therefore it is perfectly right and proper that people have asked for certain photos to be removed from Street View, and that Google have complied. They will, no doubt, replace these images soon with cleaner, emptier ones. However, extending this idea of vulnerability of information to worrying about putting mere aerial photos on the interent seems bizarre.
I remember when I was a kid, a guy used to come round the neighborhood once a year peddaling aerial photos of the town for you to hang on your wall. No one complained that a burglar might be buying those to plot their escape route. Google Street View is offereing nothing that couldn’t have been obtained by other means, in some cases simply by using your legs and eyes, it just makes it more available. If this is a problem for you, I suggest that you move to the countryside where there is no Street View, yet. There you will be able to go to the pub and complain, along with like-minded souls, about the constant erosion of privacy and civil-liberties while the rest of us get on with living our lives, getting to the places we want to go that little bit quicker thanks to Google Street View.