Google Street View scanning city

Yet another hit to privacy, experts say


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If your weekly routine involves secretly ducking into sketchy massage parlours or Starbucks for an extended coffee break, you might want to consider wearing a disguise -- Google Street View is here.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 09/04/2009 (4929 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

If your weekly routine involves secretly ducking into sketchy massage parlours or Starbucks for an extended coffee break, you might want to consider wearing a disguise — Google Street View is here.

The offspring of Google Maps and Google Earth essentially provides a continuous photographic record of the streetscape in cities in nine countries around the world. Winnipeg, along with 10 other Canadian cities, is next on the list.

A number of vehicles — they’re hard to miss with Google logos with cameras on their roofs — have been spotted around town over the past couple of days shooting on behalf of the world’s dominant search engine.

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS ARCHIVES / GOOGLE Image-capturing Google vehicles like this one have been spotted in the city.

Tamara Micner, Toronto-based Google spokeswoman, said the purpose of Street View isn’t to catch people in any kind of undesirable act, such as peeing in public. Instead, she said Street View has a number of practical uses, such as allowing people to preview holiday accommodations, find meeting spots, explore neighbourhoods and properties and look up driving directions.

"It’s sort of like armchair travel," she said. "All of the images are of public roads. This is all stuff you could see if you were walking, biking or driving on a public street."

In an attempt to diffuse privacy concerns, Google Street View automatically blurs out faces and licence plates of people and vehicles that end up in its pictures, which are not in real time. It also has an option where people who are depicted can request that their image be removed.

Arthur Schafer, a professor at the University of Manitoba and director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics, said the arrival of Google Street View signifies a further erosion of privacy. But it shouldn’t come as a big shock to most people, considering the vast number of security cameras, camera phones and other image-taking devices on the street today.

"Anybody has the right to take photographs of what happens in public. If you hold the hand of your girlfriend or scratch your crotch, you might be seen. The person who sees you might have a cellphone and they might post it on YouTube," he said.

But Schafer said he expects the number of people who will be worried about Google Street View will be far outweighed by those annoyed by the fact that they weren’t captured.

"People by the tens of thousands will be searching for their home or garden. If it’s not there, they’re upset," he said.

There are, however, people for whom their whereabouts are a matter of personal safety. Women on the run from a violent spouse or stalking victims would not want their location broadcast to the planet, he said. The blurring out of faces and the ability to request certain images be removed are "important safeguards," he said.

But even if faces are unrecognizable, it’s possible to decipher somebody’s identity by their clothing, hair or body type.

Brian Bowman, a privacy lawyer at Pitblado LLP, said even though the images are being taken in public, Canadians are still protected by the national privacy laws. He said Google and other organizations need to do a better job of informing the public when and where they’ll be shooting, such as taking out advertisements in local newspapers, so people can decide whether to be on the street at that time.

"I would expect there will be some privacy complaints by people who feel their image can be ascertained. The privacy commissioner will have to weigh in (on) whether Google is complying," he said. "This is really the beginning of the story. It’s nowhere near the end."


Virtual strolling

What is Google Street View?

It’s a service provided by the world’s largest Internet search engine that enables users to take virtual walks down streets in cities in nine different countries, including Italy and England.

When will it launch in Canada?

There is no firm timetable but a Google spokeswoman said it will take at least several months to take pictures in 11 cities across the country — it’s currently shooting in Winnipeg — and then turn them into the panoramic views for users.

Are the images real-time?

No, pictures that can be seen via Street View were taken in the past year.

Has Google Street View ever helped locate anybody?

Yes, in January its imagery was used by police officers to suc­cessfully find a kidnapped child, a nine-year-old girl from Massachu­setts, in a hotel in rural Virginia.

* * *

‘It’s sort of like armchair travel. All of the images are of public roads’

— Tamara Micner, Google spokeswoman

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