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     Mar 15, 2008
Google eye too close for comfort
By Martin J Young

HUA HIN, Thailand - The US Department of Defense lived up to its name last week, in response to Google's satellite mapping and ground-level photographing of US military installations. The department prohibited further such behavior following the discovery of detailed imagery of the Fort Sam Houston army base in Texas on Google's map web service. The images clearly showed the locations of barriers, control points and headquarters and were obtained only because Google had already been given permission to enter the base.

Google offers a Street View service, at present covering only the US, whereby one can "drive" along a particular street at ground 

level viewing parts of the virtual landscape. The generals were obviously worried that these views offered enough information for a would-be terrorist (or even tourist) to wander in and out of their bases with ease.

A spokesman for the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) stated that they were aware of Google's intention to photograph the base and the Pentagon had subsequently demanded that the search company cease and desist. Google has removed the offending images, replacing them with a void, and have stated that it was a mistake and not its normal policy. A spokesman for the company added that it is willing to listen to concerns about privacy and security.

This event is one of many that raises important questions about privacy and security for the general public as well as governments. Since Google Earth and maps are freely available to the public, many individuals may not feel comfortable with the fact that you can identify a vehicle on a drive and get even greater detail on the new Street View system, which we recently tested out.

A quick "drive" down Santa Monica Boulevard gave us a very detailed glimpse of what was happening as the photos were taken, including vehicles, number of occupants, approximate time of day and pedestrians frozen in time going about their daily lives.

The level of detail for some areas is bewildering; you can zoom in on each image and make out individual people, vehicle license plates, notices on shop windows and in some cases even look into building windows. Google actually employs a very low-tech method of generating these 360-degree street level views, namely a van with a camera mounted on the roof. The photos are provided to Google by Calgary-based imaging company Immersive Media. Nevertheless the implications of such a system, which is freely accessible on a global scale, are quite alarming.

Google has defended its product by claiming that it is no different to what people see in their daily lives and the website has "easily accessible tools for flagging inappropriate or sensitive imagery for review and removal".

Who decides what is sensitive is another matter; anyone can request to have their mugshot removed from the Internet, but whether Google will employ hundreds of people to go around editing all these images remains to be seen. The company has stated that it will be selective with what it photographs, but to many privacy advocates this is just not enough. "The cultural imperative within Google is anti-privacy, no matter what they say. This is just the latest in a litany of privacy invasions by Google, which they justify by claiming openness as an excuse" stated Simon Davies, the director of London based surveillance watchdog, Privacy International.

On the legal side, Google is pretty much covered for the time being; privacy laws in both Britain and the US allow the publication of photographs in public places. The problem in this instance is the sheer volume of photographs.

A slew of new websites has appeared recently whereby readers can submit amusing images they have discovered while playing around on Google's Street View. Some of the comical captures include people urinating in public, getting parking tickets, crashing cars, and exploring new levels of intimacy, all caught under the watchful gaze of Google's roving I-spy. There are even reports of people being photographed offering up the mid-finger salute to the intrusive mobile as it passes by.

This all may seem rather amusing to many, but imagine the power that could be wielded if these images ever become streaming video; you could no longer excuse your way out of being late for work if the boss can pull up Google maps and see that you spent the morning in Starbucks. The whereabouts of pretty much anybody caught by the all seeing eye would be revealed - it could lead to a dramatic increase in sales of balaclavas and fake moustaches! On a more serious note, it could also lead to people modifying their behavior if they thought they were being watched. It all sounds a little Orwellian, but one cannot deny that this is very powerful technology.

Gamers may also have a field day with the technology should it ever get developed - how cool would Grand Theft Auto be if you could play it in a real city and with real cars. The amusement would never end, as time after time you could drive your annoying neighbor's SUV off various buildings downtown and watch the carnage unfold. The concept of a virtual world would become a reality if it could be modeled on a real city, though the entertainment factor there may not be as stimulating as driving a bus through your local liquor store!

Google has been rumored to be considering expanding its Street View coverage and venturing overseas into other cities, London being top of the list. A little bit of stealth would be required should the search company decide to rove around less-friendly cities. Moscow citizens may be on the lookout for a battered turret-sporting Lada prowling the streets and those in Beijing could be swarmed by throngs of Google-sponsored cyclists with head-cams.

At the moment, the world, well America anyway, seems to be embracing this new technology and having a laugh at the misfortunes of others who have been caught out in public. Viewing it as an online version of candid camera is all fine and good, but personal privacy is no joke and should not be taken lightly. It is only a matter of time before more sinister things happen as a result of being able to "be there" without leaving your computer screen. Big brother, whoever that may be, is definitely watching you and may be driving by again soon for another look.

Martin J Young is an Asia Times Online correspondent based in Thailand.

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