Cameras everywhere, even in online maps

Caution: You may find yourself in Google's new street-level map view. Images: Google's closeup view

SAN JOSE, Calif.--Kevin Bankston, staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, was surprised to see his face in a street-level image on a now defunct online map a few years ago.

Worse, he was photographed smoking outside the EFF offices in San Francisco, and he had been trying to hide his habit from his family.

That's a relatively benign incident, but it illustrates how easy it is for the technology to threaten an individual's privacy, Bankston said at the Where 2.0 conference here, where Google on Tuesday announced its new street-level map view. Google's feature allows users viewing San Francisco to zoom in close enough to read street signs and even see inside front windows.

"It is irresponsible for Google to debut a product like this without also debuting technological measures that would obscure the identities of people photographed by this product," he said. "If the Google van happened by your house at the right moment it could even capture you in an embarrassing state of undress, as you close your blinds, for example."

Personal indiscretions aside, the larger concern is for people entering and leaving places like domestic violence shelters, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, fertility clinics and controversial religious or political events, Bankston said.

The Google map feature offers a way to request the removal of photos and will take down identifiable images if a person requests.

"Street View only features imagery taken on public property. This imagery is no different from what any person can readily capture or see walking down the street," a Google spokeswoman said in a statement. "We provide easily accessible tools for flagging inappropriate or sensitive imagery for review and removal...We routinely review takedown requests and act quickly to remove objectionable imagery."

However, removing images of people after the fact doesn't entirely solve the problem, Bankston said. "That is of limited use if you don't know the image is on the site and by the time you find out, whatever privacy harm may already have occurred," he said.

Google removed photos of women's shelters before launching the feature, said Cindy Southworth, director of technology at the Washington, D.C.-based National Network to End Domestic Violence, which is the umbrella group for state shelters.

"We don't want to call attention to the shelters," Southworth said. "We would rather it look like a choppy horizon line as you pan by. Our hope is that other companies will do a similar thing and reach out to us in advance."

Removing the shelters from the map greatly diminishes the privacy threat to battered women, said Ashley Tan, volunteer coordinator at Woman Inc., a San Francisco-based 24-hour domestic violence crisis line. However, there is still a slim chance a stalker could see a victim's whereabouts. "If someone is obsessed with their victim it could be used as another tool, and it will be something we have to consider in safety planning," Tan said.

The block view that Amazon.com's A9 map showed is gone, along with A9 maps in general. One of those maps outed Bankston as a smoker.

Microsoft offers a bird's-eye view on its maps that doesn't show faces and other ground-level details. The company does have a preview of a street-level technology in San Francisco and Seattle, but it won't likely be launching that product publicly and is, in fact, looking at ways to obscure identifiable images like faces and license plates, according to several Microsoft executives.

"I don't think you'll ever see us do what Google is doing," said Erik Jorgensen, general manager for search and mapping at Microsoft. Such up-close imagery on maps might make sense for applications related to travel and real estate, but users don't need and don't necessarily want a picture-perfect world on the map, he said. "The feedback we got was that people like visuals as cues integrated into driving directions," rather than the "exploratory mode" that street-level offers, he said.

AOL's MapQuest offers only a satellite aerial view. Yahoo hasn't gone I-Spy on its maps either, and it doesn't sound like it will.

"It's a different approach to developing applications. Google puts out the technology and it's not clear what the use-case is," said Jeremy Kreitler, director of product management at Yahoo Maps. "Now that (map images) can see in your windows and not just your roof, there are privacy concerns."

As technology gets more advanced it gets harder for individuals to remain invisible, said Greg Sterling, online maps expert and founder of consultancy Sterling Market Intelligence. "In this world of ubiquitous imagery it's hard to avoid privacy issues," he said. "Relatively speaking, privacy has been eroded by all this readily discoverable information."

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