July 13, 2008

Creepiest story of the day (so far)

Big Brother: The Google cars that will photograph EVERY front door in Britain

Last updated at 4:00 PM on 11th July 2008

google cars

The Google Earth spy car takes images of individual streets for inclusion on the StreetView website

Plans by Google to photograph millions of British homes and publish them online have been condemned as a 'gross invasion of privacy'.

The internet giant's StreetView website will allow anyone in the world to type in a UK address or postcode and instantly see a 360-degree picture of the street.

It will include close-ups of buildings, cars and people. Critics say the site is a 'burglar's charter' that makes it easy for criminals to check out potential victims.

The pictures also show people leaving and entering hospitals, health clinics, adult shops and hotels. Although their faces are deliberately blurred, many could still be recognised by their clothing and hair colour.

The site was launched in major American cities last year.

Google has confirmed it is now in the process of photographing Britain as part of the Street View project.

Cars emblazoned with the company's logo and carrying massive 360-degree cameras have been spotted circling the streets of British cities in recent weeks.

The data watchdog, the Information Commissioner's office, is so concerned about StreetView that it has written to Google demanding privacy guarantees.

A Google spokeswoman said: 'Google works hard to make sure that our products respect both users' expectations of privacy, and local privacy laws, in each country in which they are launched. Google Maps Street View is no exception.'

StreetView is designed to complement Google Earth, a collection of satellite pictures that covers every square mile of the globe.

Google Earth has come under fire for the level of detail in its overhead pictures, which have become enormously popular.

The pictures don't just show which homes have swimming pools or tennis courts, they can reveal the model and colour of cars, whether gardens have furniture and even sunbathers lying outside.

Critics say the site can be used by burglars planning escape routes from homes and by terrorists looking for military bases.

The site has even been used by teenagers arranging unauthorised swimming parties in unoccupied homes.

Users of the new StreetView website can either browse maps of towns before clicking on a street view, or type in an address or postcode.

By clicking on arrows on the screen, users will feel like they are walking down the street and will be able to look right, left or behind them during their virtual tour.

The images show which homes belong to wealthy owners, which have easy access for burglars, which have expensive cars parked outside and which have alarm boxes.

And although the pictures are not 'live' - they will be updated once every few years - the website has also raised concerns about people photographed by the roving cameras.

In America, its launch has provoked complaints about intrusions into privacy.

One image, since removed, showed a woman accidentally exposing her underwear as she got out of a car in an American city street. The scene was captured by a passing camera car and posted online without her permission.

Other StreetViews show two men gazing at a woman as she bends over in the street, a man apparently entering an adult book store, a man apparently scaling a security fence, and two women sunbathing on the lawn of Stanford University campus.

Internet experts in America are waiting for the first high-profile lawsuit from someone photographed in a compromising or embarrassing position.

The Information Commissioner's Office said Google would have to avoid showing people's faces. A spokesman said: 'There is a risk that StreetView could identify individuals alongside their place of work or places they are visiting.

'In most instances this will not have a serious impact on people's privacy, however identifying an individual outside some premises, for instance health clinics and hospitals, could raise serious privacy issues.

google number

'For this reason we would expect Google to take measures to ensure privacy rights are not infringed, for example blurring all images of individuals to ensure privacy rights are maintained. We are contacting Google to discuss the issue in further detail.'

The campaign group Privacy International warned that the website could be a massive invasion of privacy. It is to lodge a formal complaint with Google unless the company can guarantee that number plates and faces will be blurred.

Director Simon Davies said: 'Google has made similar privacy assurances in the past and nothing has come of them.'

Paul Gilbert, a media lawyer at London law firm Finers Stephens Innocent, said taking pictures at street level and joining them up to create a map did not breach privacy laws in the UK.

'However, if the pictures captured the inside of a person's house by taking a photograph through the window, then the homeowner may be justified in claiming a breach of privacy,' he said.

Google makes money from its websites through advertising.

It believes StreetView will be popular with tourists picking holiday destinations, housebuyers wanting to explore neighbourhoods, and shoppers trying to find stores.

It wants to encourage businesses to include links to the site on their own homepages.

Google said all faces were blurred automatically by its software, but refused to say whether number plates would also be disguised.

A spokesman said: 'We will not launch in UK until we are comfortable StreetView complies with local law, including law relating to the display of images of individuals. We will use technology, like face-blurring, and operational controls, such as image removal tools, so StreetView remains useful and in keeping with local norms wherever it is available.'

Anyone who thinks their face is recognisable can email Google and ask to have the image disguised, he said.

In Britain, anyone is allowed to take a picture of a house or a street and put it on the Internet. But if some pictures show the inside of someone's house, even inadvertently, then homeowners could show their privacy has been breached under common law.

Similarly, we are legally entitled to take pictures of people, even complete strangers, and post them on the Internet. But if a man is photographed walking past an adult store - but not going in - giving the wrong impression that he is a customer, then the image could defame his character.


Here's what readers have had to say so far. Why not add your thoughts below?

What is wrong with people? Do they have something to hide?
Anybody can walk down any street and look at your garden, your house, your car, your kids toys strewn about, etc., etc., and there are more CCTV cameras in this country than you can shake a stick at.

Google Earth is a fascinating addition to anyone's browsing pleasure, so good on you Google for making it even better.

And if you are concerned that you will be photographed doing something you shouldn't, don't do it.

- Joe King, Lancs, 11/7/2008 07:48

Well we could all put big stickers advertising other search engines on our front doors-so Google will be paying to advertise a competitor. Google can only do this because they feel confident that we have no other choice but to use them. Wrong, let's start using other search engines, and advertising them on our front doors. That will soon put pay to Googlewatch.

- Ann, UK, 11/7/2008 07:47

Up to now I have been very impressed with Google and use them all the time as my favourite search engine.... but this is a Bridge Too Far - Sorry Chaps!!

- Sally Roberts, London, UK, 11/7/2008 07:45

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