Smile! You’re on Google Maps

Google has just released a new feature on its Google Maps service that allows you to view 360-degree photographs of streets. The tool also let you move along the street in a smooth manner and you can change your angle and continue moving that way. The Street View function was announced at yesterday’s Where 2.0 conference and is based on technology acquired by Google from Immersive Media, a company which has pioneered the use of an eleven lens camera capable of taking full, high-res video while driving along city streets. The service is currently available for certain areas of eight US cities including Las Vegas, New York and San Francisco. You can view a demo here

While this is undoubtedly a remarkable piece of technology, it raises serious issues around online privacy, which may explain why Google has been uncharacteristically quiet in its publicity of the new service. The street views are amazingly sharp and through use of the zoom tool it’s possible to identify the faces of passers-by and even peek through windows.

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At the risk of getting all Orwellian, it seems that Google is merrily ramping up its campaign to snap and publish the planet at close quarters and little is being done to stop them. It’s safe to say it won’t be long before the Street View feature is included in Google Earth, and the company will be keen to start covering more cities throughout the world. As frightening as it sounds it may not be too long before streaming footage of entire cities (including shots of you going about your business) is being beamed across the Web.

It’s easy to dismiss this as an impossible scenario but it raises important questions about the alarmingly few measures in place to protect an individual’s right to privacy. The State has the power to prevent sensitive data from being published, which is why Google is unable to show close-up views of certain military installations and government quarters. However, in most countries the individual isn’t afforded the same protection. Take for instance, the fact that a person can be clearly identified on Street View. Most photographers would take the view that it’s unethical to publish images of someone without their consent (unless the person isn’t the main subject of an image or is part of a crowd and cannot be identified). However, most countries do not recognise this by law, which seemingly gives companies like Google the green light to beam pictures of anyone across the globe.

Of course, we won’t all be acting out our lives on camera just yet, and hopefully Google’s motives aren’t to engineer a situation akin to The Truman Show or Ed TV, but it would be reassuring to know that this situation could never happen. Big Brother isn’t watching yet, but perhaps he’s just found the remote control.

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