Google Street View has launched in Japan, and it's at least as controversial there as it has been in other tech-savvy countries.
Seth RosenblattFormer Senior Writer / News
Senior writer Seth Rosenblatt covered Google and security for CNET News, with occasional forays into tech and pop culture. Formerly a CNET Reviews senior editor for software, he has written about nearly every category of software and app available.
Does Google know judo? Maybe. Google Street View has pulled a sutemi--a judo throw in which you launch yourself at the ground, risking disadvantage, to topple your opponent--on the entire Floating Kingdom. Even though Japan knew that the controversial Google Street View was coming to Japan, the tech savvy country was caught off-guard by Google's willingness to involve itself in yet another privacy imbroglio.
The pattern is familiar. Cars mounted with the Google Street View cameras scoot through a neighborhood, taking 360-degree shots of all they surveil. When the feature finally goes live, amused Netizens find images of people in compromising positions, while others decry the end of innocence--uh, privacy.
In Japan earlier this week, the real-world Google Street View effect saw images of two high-school lovebirds playing dentist, a photo shoot in a park, a person collapsed or asleep in a street, the wife of a CEO of a major Internet services company, and the expected shots of couples entering love hotels, which is basically a motel with hourly rates and vibrating beds. The irony of this is that the Japanese are often obsessive about their privacy and ''saving face'' can often be taken literally, where people will cross their arms in a big X in front of their bodies or faces when you threaten an unwanted photograph. When I was living there, I even had a shop owner come out and demand that I not take a photo of the exterior of his trendy shoe store. That's quite a different attitude from what we experience in the U.S., and ironic given the popularity of photography there.
On message boards, the debate has mirrored that of other countries, from the expected, ''new technology is ruining our way of life,'' to a bear-hugged embrace of finally being able to see what the place you're supposed to be going to looks like. That's no small accomplishment in Tokyo's notorious neighborhoods, where warrens of streets zig, zag, and loop back upon themselves seemingly without logic.
Still, Japanese IT professional Osamu Higuchi was so horrified by Street View that he wrote an open letter to Google explaining how it has acted out of disregard for local standards and could encourage more crime. He called the effects of Street View ''evil.'' Heavy stuff.
Despite being a country with one of the lowest per-capita crime rates anywhere in the world, Japan's media is obsessed with reporting on any change that could lead to an increase. As such, Higuchi's letter isn't surprising. His concerns that laundry left out to dry and car parking spaces revealed in Japan's densely packed and often-empty-during-office-hours residential neighborhoods could lead to higher theft rates are not without some merit, at least in theory.
While it's not as crazy a theory as the Hadron Collider destroying the planet, I've yet to see any reports of increased crime anywhere being linked to Google Street View. Also, as JapanProbe and others have noted, Google has been quick to remove offending images and has been using face-blurring algorithms to try to add a modicum of privacy protection.