Keep your curtains closed, or Google can peek

Street View

Explore neighborhoods at street level–virtually.

June 4 — Two students are sunbathing in bikinis. A man picks his nose in San Francisco. In Miami, a group of protesters carry signs outside an abortion clinic. Men slip into pornographic bookshops or shuffle out of strip clubs. There is even a burglar apparently caught in the act.

Has Google gone too far? That was the fear being expressed online over the weekend after the Internet giant launched Street View, which can zoom in so closely that individual lives are captured and offered up to a global audience.

Street View was introduced on Google maps for San Francisco, New York, Las Vegas, Denver and Miami last week, and there are plans to expand the service to other US cities and other countries.

The high-resolution images were taken from vans driving along public streets during the past year and will be periodically updated, but the company has not specified a timetable.

The backlash against Street View began after Mary Kalin-Casey, from Oakland, California, looked up her own street and saw her pet cat, Monty, sitting on a perch in the window of her second-floor flat.

She complained on the blog website boingboing: “I’m all for mapping, but this feature literally gives me the shakes. I feel like I need to close all my curtains now. Dang, it’s so detailed, I can even see he’s a tabby!”

Technology bible Wired magazine’s website was quick to invite users to vote on the best images. Captions included: “Girl bends over… guys check her out”, “Guy taking a leak into bushes?”, “Naked woman?” and “Break-in in progress”.

A Google spokesman said: “We’re focused on providing high-quality Street View imagery for regions throughout the world. This feature may vary by country in response to local laws and norms.”

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.

Privacy experts believe these kinds of issues are bound to arise as technology makes it increasingly easy to share pictures and video on the Internet, pitting the rights of free expression against the rights to personal privacy.

“What you have to do is balance out the perception against the reality and I think in this case, the perception is much scarier than the reality,” said Lauren Weinstein, co-founder of People For Internet Responsibility, a policy group.

To guard against privacy intrusions, Google said all the photos were taken from vehicles driving along public streets.

“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 also provides 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 does not want to be included. Company spokeswoman Victoria Grand said Google has fielded “very few” removal requests so far.

But Eileen Diamond is hoping she can persuade Google to replace its current picture of a Miami street corner where protesters gather once a week to protest the abortions performed at A Choice For Women. The picture – available on Google’s maps on Friday afternoon – includes a cluster of protesters standing outside the clinic, an image that clinic administrator Diamond worries will scare away potential patients or perhaps attract troublemakers.

“It’s sort of disturbing because it’s certainly not the kind of message we want to be sending out,” said Diamond. “It’s already very painful for our patients to come in. We want them to feel safe and protected.”

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