SAN FRANCISCO (AP) – Google Inc. calls the latest change to its online maps ”Street View,” but it looks a bit like ”Candid Camera.”
In San Francisco, there is a man picking his nose on a street corner. At Stanford University, there are a couple coeds sunbathing in bikinis. In Miami, there is a group of protesters carrying signs outside an abortion clinic. In other cities, you can see men entering adult book stores or leaving strip clubs.
The feature provides high-resolution photos to enable street-level tours so users can get a more realistic, 360-degree look at locations.
But potentially embarrassing or compromising scenes 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 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.
Street View was introduced on Google maps for the San Francisco Bay area, New York, Las Vegas, Denver and Miami earlier this week. The California-based company already is planning to expand the service to other U.S. cities and other countries.
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 during the past year. The photos will be periodically updated, but the company has not specified a timetable.
”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 is not the first company to try this. 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.