Search engine as panopticon
TECHSPLOITATION A couple of weeks ago Google announced its latest map widget with much fanfare. Called Street View, it's an option on Google Maps that gives you (literally) a view from street level of the address you're searching for. When you go to Google Maps, click "Street View" in the upper right corner (not all cities have it try San Francisco or New York), and you'll get a little icon shaped like a human that you can move around the city grid. Move the human into place, click it, and suddenly you find yourself looking at a picture of the houses on the street. You can navigate down the block with arrows, even turning your point of view left or right to get a full 360-degree view of the spot.
All the images on Street View were taken over the past few months by a camera mounted on a roving van. Later Google used special software to "knit" the discrete pictures together, creating the illusion that you're seeing seamless images of streets. If this sounds futuristic to you, it's not a couple of years ago, Amazon made a similar service available via its search tool A9. But after Google hired Udi Manber, who ran A9 for Amazon, the service went downhill, and it's now no longer available. Instead we have Google's Street View.
When you first use Street View, it feels like Google has turned the real world into a video game. I recently took a "walk" all around a San Francisco neighborhood where I might like to live. By clicking the arrow, I moved down Guerrero Street, "looking" to my right and left at the houses and local businesses to figure out how many blocks my potential residence would be from crucial things like cafés and a grocery store. I felt like I was in the virtual world Second Life, except that I couldn't fly and most of the people on the street weren't giant centaurs with wings and magic powers.
Still, it was hard to take my eyes off the people on the street. Captured on film without their knowledge or permission, they'll be online for all to see for at least a couple of years possibly more. Some naughty bloggers over at Wired.com have already asked people to submit the best "street sightings" they've found on Street View. Several pictures of seminaked people sunbathing or undressing near open windows turned up right away, as did pictures of people pissing against buildings. Searchers also found a picture of somebody being arrested (Google took that one down), as well as a snapshot of two women on San Francisco's Hyde Street who appear to be exchanging money for drugs. And there are thousands more like these.
What are the ethics involved here? Is this an invasion of people's privacy? All the photographs were taken in public places, and therefore nobody in them has any reasonable expectation of privacy under the law. But then again, privacy laws weren't written with Street View in mind. It's lawful to eavesdrop on people on the street because they're in public. But is it lawful to publish online in perpetuity a picture of someone that captures him or her making out with somebody at a bus stop? Soon, lawsuits may seek to answer that very question.
In the meantime, Google is hoping you won't ask because you're so impressed with the prettiness and usability of its shiny new thing. As I mentioned before, I've already found the service helpful in my search for a new place to live. It might also be good for figuring out the best places to park near your destination, or whether a hotel is as nice and well located as it claims to be. Mostly, though, I don't know why anyone would consider Street View to be more of a useful tool than a slightly creepy toy. I suppose it could be a great way for stalkers and thieves to find houses that are isolated, shielded from the street by greenery, or accessible by bottom-floor windows without bars. One day, even burglars might find their targets by Googling.
For now, however, Google Street View only covers a few cities, and the interface is a little slow. But the van is still out there, taking pictures automatically, posting everything it sees online. And the interface will improve. Is the dubious convenience of this tool worth the privacy trade-off? Do you really want to walk down the street never knowing whether your furtive nose-picking or secret meeting with a colleague has been captured and broadcast to the Google-using public? *
Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who will not stop picking her nose furtively in public and reserves the right to be pissed if you publish a picture of her doing it.