Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Google Street View

This month, instead of writing my Shetland Life article as I should have been, I once again found myself rumbling around the Internet convincing myself that I was undertaking some sort of informal ‘research’. But while looking for info on Shetland’s CCTV obsession and related invasion of privacy issues (a topic I shall return to) I was tangented by the ongoing debate surrounding Google’s controversial ‘Street View’ initiative, launched in the UK earlier this year.

‘Street View’ is a relatively new addition to Google’s arsenal of Internet implements; a service that allows users to view 360-degree panoramic images of streets in selected cities around the world.

The technology is fairly straightforward. A standard hatchback car is fitted with nine directional cameras on the roof to capture the 360 views, with a GPS unit for positioning and laser scanners to calculate distances. The car potters around the chosen city taking a regular series of photos as it goes, before loading the data into a computer that “sews” the images together to make the finished continuous views.

The results are very satisfying, if not groundbreaking. It’s worth mentioning www.originart.com, which contains a clickable map of Shetland with photographs taken at every road junction; a website which predates Google’s Street View by several years.

But it’s the sheer scale of Street View that must be appreciated, with thousands of photographs taken in each of the many hundreds of cities already included, and many more images are added daily.

It’s a very simple service to use too; choose the city you wish to have a nosey around by entering “street view” into Google and dive in.

In Scotland, so far Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee and Aberdeen have come under the all-seeing eye. Because I lived in Glasgow for several years I decided to begin by visiting some of my old haunts, so I clicked on Paisley Road West and next I knew I was at street level outside my ex-local shops, pubs and cafes. From there I took several virtual journey’s around town, stopping every now and again to take In the panoramic views; quite a peculiar experience.

However, Aberdeen is somewhat of a disappointment to the casual Shetland observer since coverage curiously doesn’t extend to Union Street, let alone the pulchritudinous vistas down Market Street to the Northlink terminal.

Being able to look at detailed photographs of entire cities is all well and good, but there’s been a bit of a furore regarding privacy infringements. Many critics, fuelled by red top media sensationalism, accuse Google of everything from allowing burglars to identify soft target properties to breaking up marriages when spouses see their partners vehicles parked outside a love rival’s house. Google are at pains to point out that their automated technology, in 99% of cases, blurs out information such as people’s faces and car number plates, and that the photographs are no more invasive of privacy than walking down a street and looking for yourself. However, numerous individuals and organisations, including the Swiss government, have recently begun legal proceedings against Google in an attempt to censure the service.

With the unstoppable rise in popularity of photo sharing social networks such as Facebook, video sharing sites including YouTube, services such as Google Street View, a video camera on every mobile phone and the massively disproportionate use of CCTV in Britain, it seems privacy as we once knew it is a thing of the past.

Article for Shetland Life magazine - December 2009

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