Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Google Maps Street View in Middle America

My sister's family lives in a small Nebraskan town with an estimated population of 3,000 people and an estimated median house value of $127,000 (was less than $100,000 in 2000). Nonetheless, Google has taken its mapping technology to these streets and captured my brother-in-law and niece on film (without their permission). It appears Google truly does want a visual index of all streets in America. Indeed, according to Wikipedia, "Google has stated that its ultimate goal is to provide street views of the entire world, although the company has not disclosed in advance the exact dates when any particular locations will be added"

Now, there have been plenty of write-ups online about the chilling implications of this technology from a privacy standpoint (see end of this post). Admittedly, I had not paid much attention to said implications until now. What I find startling here is not just that my family was captured on film and automatically uploaded by Google but that this picture was taken while my brother-in-law was on his private property in front of his own house (with my little niece no less). Further, if you click on the "Full-screen" link, the Street View photo itself increases in size, which is even more unsettling. It just makes one feel invaded. Note, here, however that there is evidence that Google is running automatic face detection algorithms and blurring faces. Automatic face detection is pretty much considered a solved problem in the computer vision world (face detection is not the same thing as face recognition). It's difficult to tell if Google is in fact explicitly obscuring the face here or if the overall photo quality is just poor.

Although the photo quality published online is rather low, I would not be surprised if the original captured image was of much higher quality, which likely still resides in a Google database somewhere. I would imagine that Google has plans to apply computer vision algorithms for automatic object detection, 3D-routing, sign reading, sidewalk routing (for people routing, rather than car routing), etc. Thus, there would be little reason for them to invest the money into Street View and not capture the highest quality imagery possible.

Some related links
Wikipedia's Google Street View page has a Privacy issues section as well as a long list of links to articles and news items related to Street View's growth, governmental concerns, and privacy implications:

Privacy advocates have objected to this Google feature, pointing to views found to show men leaving strip clubs, protesters at an abortion clinic, sunbathers in bikinis, cottagers at public parks, parents hitting their children, males picking up prostitutes and other activities, as well as people engaging in activities visible from public property in which they do not wish to be seen publicly.[19] Google maintains that the photos were taken from public property. Before launching the service, Google removed photos of domestic violence shelters, and allows users to flag inappropriate or sensitive imagery for Google to review and remove.[20] When the service was first launched, the process for requesting that an image be removed was not trivial;[21] however, Google has since changed its policy to make removal more straightforward.[22] Images of potential break-ins, sunbathers and individuals entering adult bookstores have, for example, remained active and these images have been widely republished.[23]

Mashable has a Top 15 Google Street View Sightings page including pictures of a possible crime in progress, female sunbathers, and men coming/going from adult related entertainment venues. Some more Street View oddities are listed on this blog post. The New York Times has an article entitled Google Zooms In Too Close for Some, which is also worth a look as it briefly explores the idea of public vs. private and ownership of data.

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