Google Street View Raises Privacy Concerns in Australia

by Gopalan on Aug 11 2008 3:04 PM

 Google Street View Raises Privacy Concerns in Australia
Google Street View introduced only last week for Australia has already raised serious privacy concerns.
Meant as an exciting tool to explore cityscapes, landmarks and other points of interest or to find shops, restaurants, parks, hotels and the like, apparently it could also show up people in some embarrassing positions.

Like it happened in the case of Bill (not his real name) of Victoria. He had been drowning his sorrows over the weekend after the Friday funeral of his friend and felt worse for wear when a taxi dropped him off at his mother's home early on Monday February 4.

Feeling ill, he lay on the grass, and fell asleep.

The next thing he knew was being woken up by police in the morning.

He wasn't aware that Google's camera-equipped car had driven by earlier and snapped his picture.

And when Street View was launched, the man lolling on the grass was there for all to see. The picture has since been taken down after it was flagged by users.

It was Australia Day weekend and Bill, a 36-year-old skipper who leads a crew of five fishermen in the Northern Territory, had just returned home to Lakes Entrance for a much-needed break.

For five months prior to the accident, the pair had been planning a motorbike trip around Tasmania.

With that plan in tatters, after the funeral, Bill and some friends decided to drown their sorrows all weekend and "come Monday morning, I got out of the taxi and rolled over on the grass and went to sleep on the footpath".

"What do you do when you lose a mate like that, you know?," he said.

"I know what he would have done if I left - he would've partied too, that's what I would've wanted him to do so that's what we did."

Bill said he understood that he could not expect complete privacy in a public street but did not expect his embarrassing moment to be broadcast over the internet.

He was fearful that those living in his area would log on to Street View to check out their neighbourhood and stumble across the image of him passed out on the footpath.

His mother, asked for her reaction upon hearing of the Street View images, said: "I was absolutely horrified - I was horrified that anybody had even heard about it."

Bill himself does not have internet access on his boat and his mother does not have a computer. So it would have been doubly mortifying to be told of the image through someone else, by which time thousands might have viewed the picture.

The issue highlights some of the concerns voiced by privacy activists, who say that while Street View is a great tool for armchair explorers, people are not given the choice of whether they or their houses appear on the site.

A form inside the "Street View Help" page allows people to report images they see as inappropriate or invasive, but the Australian Privacy Foundation said the form is not visible enough and Google was too slow to remove images reported by users.

Street View has already exposed a cheating spouse, uncovered a lying neighbour and snapped a man sleeping on the job.

On Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday last week, "street view" was entered into Google's search engine more times than "Olympics", according to Google's Insight tool, writes Asher Moses in Age.

Despite Google's commitment to blur faces and number plates, people can still be identified by location and their appearance.

A letter writer in last weekend's Herald, Janice Creenaune, was similarly mortified after logging on to Street View.

Both her parents were pictured outside their house but her dad had passed away a month ago.

"While recognising that Google-time is never real-time, the image renews the raw loss," she wrote.

But another letter writer, Elizabeth Maher, had a more positive experience: "While others may have legitimate complaints about Google publishing pictures of their house, I was delighted to views ours, with me pictured hard at work in the garden, complete with broom and bucket, thereby dispelling any uncertainty as to who is the gardener in the family."

The Privacy Commissioner, Karen Curtis, has said her office continued to monitor Street View and would be meeting Google representatives shortly to discuss recent privacy concerns.

Google Australia spokesman Rob Shilkin said Google could not comment on specific images but noted the positive side of Street View, such as the fact that it has already been integrated on property sites like as a way for home buyers and renters to research suburbs and addresses.

He said the company had taken significant steps to protect the privacy of individuals, including face blurring and tools for people to flag sensitive imagery for removal.


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