Google Street View may meet its match in Europe – to our loss

When Google Streetview was given the green-light by the UK’s Information Commissioner last July, it appeared as if sanity had prevailed. Despite the protests of Privacy International, which pops up like a Meerkat every time Google or another tech company tries do do something innovative, the Commissioner ruled that it was “satisfied” that Google’s Street View photo-mapping would have safeguards to avoid risking anyone’s privacy or safety. But then Google made two major errors when it launched Street View last week. It has not covered up the faces of many people on the maps, or the number plates on their cars. And it has not photographed the house of Google’s UK MD – because he lives in a private road. As we say in tech: FAIL.

Given how the largely right-wing UK press would act once it smelt blood, Google is now facing a perfect storm of protest that could hobble Street View – but with it the chances for Europe to join the tide of positive innovation that the release of publicly editable data is going to have on society.

Now a formal complaint about Google’s Street View has been sent to the Information Commissioner (ICO) by Privacy International citing more than 200 reports from members of the public identifiable via the service, and it now wants the ICO to look again at how Street View works. As if it hadn’t already.

But as Google boss Eric Schmidt has said “We agree with the concerns over privacy. The way we address it is by allowing people to opt out, literally to take anything we capture that is inappropriate out and we do it as quickly as we possibly can.”

In other words, as fast as people complain to Google that they have been seen on SV standing on a street corner, or they found their house, Google is allowing them to be removed from the system. So how long will PI’s list of 200 last? Probably less than a week. But no matter. PI wants the whole thing switched off.

This is not to lightly dismiss some real concerns. The BBC reports that a woman who had moved house to escape a violent partner was recognisable outside her new home on Street View.

But do I wonder if Google is being disingenuous. Surely it’s system could have been more thoroughly checked before going live? Could it possibly have contemplated the idea that all this publicity would help break the whole story into the mainstream media? Going live and just telling a few tech blogs does not a national issue make.

If Google had wanted to avoid the controversy it could have double-checked its system before going live and conducted a public information campaign. It could have told every private householder in the UK that their property might appear on the Google database and that they’d have the right to take it off. But they did not. Is it not far easier and cheaper to release Street View “half-cocked”, create a storm of media interest, get public awareness and at the same time allow people to remove themselves?

This is, however, a dangerous strategy. In Europe we are obsessed with privacy (at least among the older generation – the younger generation is far more savvy about these things). Just look at Germany’s reaction to Street View.

Plus, Street View will have three powerful forces aligned against it:

– Our innate, culturally European desire for privacy.

– Our innate, culturally European fear of crime / burglars / nosey neighbours.

– Our perfectly legitimate concerns about terrorism, and anything which makes it easier for terrorists to check out locations (a matter which has historically rarely affected mainland North America and which people internally at Google will probably just not get)

– The desire of European governments – especially the current British one – to use any news at all to draw the masses away from blaming them for the Great Recession. They will happily join the mob and the press against Google and Street View.

Meanwhile the ICO is doing the smart thing and just telling Google to “ensure all vehicle registration marks and faces are satisfactorily blurred” and advising “individuals who feel that an image does identify them (and are unhappy with this) should contact Google direct to get the image removed.” Common sense.

And I’m seeing it happen. Traveling down a local street near my house on SV I am starting to come across blank patches where people must have asked to be removed (I live in an area of London where there are plenty of tech-savvy people). Just before the images reach a local school they stop. Someone at Google thought that through. I hope.

However, the system is by no means perfect. It took me 30 seconds to find a car number plate unblurred and another 20 mins to find a man with a face untouched. In other words, not a lot of effort. There is clearly work to be done.

But should we dismiss Street View so lightly?

The UK is one of the most heavily photographed nations on earth. There are more CCTV per square mile here than almost anywhere in the world. They are also always on. Google Street View however is only a snapshot, it does not show trends and we can edit it. That’s a significant difference.

Yes, Google is using these images for commercial purposes. But we can use them too. There are already startups piling in to Streetview to add value to their service

Property or venue recommendation companies will use it. Trusted Places and Qype will be able to integrate Street View.

IRLConnect will implement Google Street View to their presence-based network, to get conversation going around locations.

Novaloca didn’t even wait for Street View. They integrated images from Seety/ which has done it’s own drive around London with cameras. Has Privacy International heard of them? Perhaps it’s not high profile enough of a target.

There will be others: Local councils will be able to identify derelict houses, or map road problems faster and more cheaply than before. Society could actually, conceivably benefit from this technology – and isn’t that why we live in a democracy? To use it better than the bad guys?

So far I think the best one is both environmentally cool and a great idea:, the UK’s largest on-line parking space marketplace allows drivers to find cheaper alternatives to commercial parking lots and in turn, puts the money in home owner’s pockets rather than those of large corporations. Surely a business for our times? It has implemented Street View to allow drivers to view a parking space before they rent it. The implementation is here and you see it by clicking on the Street View tab above the map. This is one of the first commercial implementations of Street View in the UK which adds value to an existing service.

Meanwhile I sympathise with those, like Broadsight’s Alan Patrick, who found their car’s number plate on Streetview unblurred. But he has submitted his (anonymous) email address and asked it to be rubbed from the system. Yes, Alan, Google took a picture of your house without your permission or paying you. Does this contravene some rules on privacy? I’m not sure either, but to be frank, anyone can take a picture of my house and put it on the Internet and I’d be none the wiser. At least Google lets me ask for it to be removed. At least I have some control over this data, some recourse to action.

With one nation, under CCTV, I do not.