Big Google is Watching

Being without Internet for a week, I completely missed the explosion over Google Streetview until yesterday afternoon, when Brendan pointed me to it. If you do not know what Google Streetview is, you can check it out: here. Basically, it’s a collection of photographs taken at street level in several major cities, including San Francisco and New York.

At first glance, it’s a neat concept. I promptly checked out all of my favourite hangouts in the City. It’s pretty awesome, you can navigate around, walk down the street, see what’s on sale at the Body Shop. Whatever floats your boat.

However, concerns began to arise as I jaunted down a sunny street in the Castro and peered into a friend’s window in the Mission. First of all, I noticed that all of the pictures in San Francisco were uniformly sunny, which I think is not representative of the spirit of the city. In order to accurately depict San Francisco, Streetview really ought to have grey, sullen skies over the Sunset, for example. And the Golden Gate Bridge is bathed in golden sunlight, a far cry from the fog it is usually swathed in. This is only perpetuating the stereotype of California as a sunny place, which is patently not true.

As I cruised along the streets, my concerns only deepened. The pictures, of course, capture a static moment in time, and are not a live stream. But they still disturbed me.

One of the reasons I left San Francisco was the imminent adoption of CCTV downtown. I assumed that it would only be a matter of time before the technology spread throughout the City, and it made me deeply uncomfortable. It’s not that I am constantly up to nefarious deeds, I just like the illusion of privacy. The idea that unknown individuals could be watching me while I went about my business made me uncomfortable. We Americans are big on our privacy, you know.

I am aware that stepping outside subjects me to observation. I am not asking people to avert their heads when they see me on the street. But it makes me uncomfortable to be in businesses which use cameras, and I do not like the thought of cameras on the streets. My old house isn’t in Streetview, which actually rather surprises me, since Treasure Island is a neat place to look at. But I know that finding it would have unnerved me, and that looking into my windows would have been a little upsetting.

Clearly, other people are riled up about this because their houses are on the Internet. Brendan, for example, was chatting with a friend, and said “I can see your house! It’s the one with the yoga ball in the window!” And the friend said: “What?! That’s my yoga ball, man, that’s not cool. That freaks me out.” I’m sure that Streetview will reveal crimes in progress, half naked co-eds, and other objects of comment (and delight) as people peruse it. It already appears that official complaints have been made, since I see blacked out chunks. But this “post first and retract later” policy may not be the best one.

Is it really…necessary? I mean, I suppose you could use it to give directions to your house, saying “look for this sign on the corner” and “my front door is this one.” There is certainly no law which prohibits Google from taking pictures from the street, but it still makes me feel a bit squicky. Google, it is clear, is slowly taking over the world. I’m sure that I am on there somewhere, given the nature of my adventures in San Francisco. And I am not sure that I am comfortable with that.

The level of resolution is insane. You can read license plate numbers, see who is walking into Planned Parenthood, and see the date on a bus transfer. I’m not sure that this is entirely necessary, or safe. Someone could be seen walking into the psychologist’s office for counseling, and be questioned about it by an employer. A young woman looking for birth control at Planned Parenthood might be spotted by her conservative parents. A stalker could find a victim’s house by identifying a car in a driveway. Does Google really want to bring this on? The information age is bringing about a profound lack of privacy for us all…the question is, how much are we willing to take?