Google’s online map feature that provides pictures of real-world moments at spots around the world has become a flash point for people worried about the erosion of privacy in the Internet Age.
Street View images at Google Maps sparked controversy from the outset of the project three years ago.
Google dispatched cars and tricycles rigged with cameras and satellite positioning gear to take pictures of what one might see on streets around the world and synched the images to its free online mapping service.
Some people complained that faces could be recognized in pictures, raising the potential that people caught in compromising situations, perhaps stepping out of an adult video store, would have such moments memorialized online.
Others expressed fears that numbers from license plates could be used to figure out who parks or lives on certain streets.
“Street View is a service that collects and makes permanent information that used to be transient,” said John Verdi, senior counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
“Someone walking or driving down a street where anyone could see was always public, but when you put it in a database and make it accessible it raises privacy concerns.”
People were soon accusing Street View vehicles of straying onto private roads or yards to snap pictures in violation of the California-based Internet giant’s policies.
Google adapted to ameliorate concerns. It began blurring faces and car license plate numbers in images.
This year the Street View controversy rocketed to a new level with the revelation by Google that electronics in its picture-taking vehicles captured data from wireless Internet systems not secured by passwords.
Google basically had access to unencrypted email, video downloads, Web browsing or other digital information passing through wireless routers in homes or businesses as its Street View vans went by, Verdi said.
Google has apologized repeatedly for what it called an accidental data grab, but authorities in more than a dozen countries are investigating whether the company broke privacy laws.
“The big concern here is that actions speak louder than words,” Verdi said.
South Korean police Tuesday searched the offices of Google Korea as part of its probe, an officer said.
Police seized computer hard discs and other material. After analyzing the material they plan to summon the company’s staff for questioning.
Efforts by governments to get the Street View data threaten to multiply damage to people’s privacy even if Google is true to its word that it has done nothing with the information.
“Simply handing over the data to governments can be a very bad idea,” said Electronic Frontier Foundation international rights director Katitza Rodriguez.
“In some cases, the remedy can be worse than the disease.”
Countries could use the pretext of investigating Street View to mine Google data in ways that “might create risky situations for human rights activists, dissidents, or bloggers fighting for their rights,” she added.
Silicon Valley analyst Rob Enderle theorized that Google might have intended to map locations of open wireless “hot spots” as a potential service to users.
“Telling people where they can get on the Internet for free while they are out and about sounds to me like a typical Google thing to do,” Enderle said. “It wouldn’t surprise me.”
Identity thieves might view a roster of open wireless zones the way burglars might look at a list of homes left unlocked, according to the analyst.
Google said it would allow Germans to block out their homes on Street View ahead of its launch in the country this year but privacy watchdogs were still not happy.
“Google Street View is a great tool, for instance, for tourists to scope out the location that he or she wants to visit,” Rodriguez said.
“However, Google’s technology is too invasive, and goes too far. We expect some degree of anonymity while we are walking on the streets.”