SAN FRANCISCO – Google Inc. bills the latest twist on its online maps as “Street View,” but it looks a bit like “Candid Camera” as you cruise through the panorama of pictures that captured fleeting moments in neighborhoods scattered across the country.
In San Francisco, there’s a man picking his nose on a street corner, another fellow taking out the trash and another guy scaling the outside of an apartment building, perhaps just for fun or maybe for some more sinister purpose.
Farther down the highway at Stanford University, there’s the titillation of a couple coeds sunbathing in their bikinis. In San Jose, there’s the rather sad sight of a bearded man apparently sleeping – or did he just pass out? – in the shadow of a garbage can, with what appears to be an empty cup perched in front of him.
In Miami, there’s a group of protesters carrying signs outside an abortion clinic. In other cities, you can see men entering adult bookstores or leaving strip joints.
Potentially embarrassing or compromising scenes like these are raising questions about whether the Internet’s leading search engine has gone too far in its latest attempt to make the world a more accessible – and transparent – place.
“Everyone expects a certain level of anonymity as they move about their daily lives,” said Kevin Bankston, a staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a group devoted to protecting people’s rights on the Internet. “There is a certain ‘ick’ factor here.”
Google is hoping to elicit “oohs and ahhs” with Street View, which was introduced on its maps for the San Francisco Bay area, New York, Las Vegas, Denver and Miami earlier this week. The Mountain View-based company already is planning to expand the service to other U.S. cities and other countries.
The feature provides high-resolution photos to enable street-level tours so users can get a more realistic, 360-degree look at places they might go or spots where they already have been. To guard against privacy intrusions, Google said all the photos were taken from vehicles driving along public streets during the past year. The photos will be periodically updated, but the company hasn’t specified a timetable for doing so.
“This imagery is no different from what any person can readily capture or see walking down the street,” Google spokeswoman Megan Quinn said in a statement. “Imagery of this kind is available in a wide variety of formats for cities all around the world.”
Google certainly isn’t the first company to venture down this photographic avenue. Amazon.com Inc. launched a similar mapping feature in January 2005 on a search engine called A9.com. That search engine’s former chief executive, Udi Manber, now works for Google. And Microsoft Corp. began displaying street-level pictures on its online maps for San Francisco and Seattle late last year.
A9’s photographic maps, which were abandoned late last year, raised privacy concerns about women being seen entering domestic violence shelters.
Hoping to avoid similar complaints, Google tried to identify potentially sensitive locations by contacting the Safety Net Project at the National Network to End Domestic Violence, much to the delight of Cindy Southworth, the group’s director.
“We were thrilled that a major technology company like this reached out in this way to help protect these victims,” she said.
Google also is offering a “help” button on all the street-level photos to provide a link for users to request the removal of an image that is objectionable or clearly identifies a person who doesn’t want to be included.