/ 1 October 2010

Google Street View: No more privacy for penguins

A big bone of contention in many countries, Google’s Street View mapping service on Thursday goes live in Brazil, Ireland and Antarctica, meaning Street View now has a presence in all seven continents.

Launched in May 2007 in five US cities, the panoramic imaging service has gone on to map cities on every corner of the planet, attracting ire and admiration along the way.

Brian McClendon, vice-president of engineering at Google Earth and Maps, wrote on the company’s blog: “We often consider Street View to be the last zoom layer on the map, and a way to show you what a place looks like as if you were there in person — whether you’re checking out a coffee shop across town or planning a vacation across the globe. We hope this new imagery will help people in Ireland, Brazil, and even the penguins of Antarctica to navigate nearby, as well as enable people around the world to learn more about these areas.”

Speaking to the Guardian, Ed Parsons, Google’s geospatial technologist — “When I joined Google, I was fortunate to be asked what I wanted to be known as” — said the latest move was “hugely significant” and that the service would continue to expand. “This allows you to vist places you don’t normally,” Parsons said. “One of the challenges we wanted to crack is to go to these remote places, and one of geo team at Google went to Antarctica so he took some kit and took some imagery. It’s called Street View, but there aren’t many streets in Antarctica!

“This allows people to understand the contrast between New York Times Square and being on the edge of a glacier looking at penguins.”

Much has changed in the three years since Google launched Street View. Privacy was not nearly as contentious in the five US cities — New York, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Miami and Denver — as it currently is in Germany, and the camera resolution wasn’t technically as good. On both these scores, Parsons says, Google has continued to innovate: “With each new release the imagery is of a higher quality and there are more tools to protect privacy, the technology evolves and it’s easier to navigate.”

The company’s exploration to the southernmost continent, Antarctica, also marks the company’s visit to a continent where it isn’t facing — or has faced — legal proceedings. Since launch, Street View has attracted legal complaints from private citizens, criminal investigations from authorities, and close scrutiny by alarmed governments.

Parson said: “One of the things that caused us surprise was how different the various nations’ view of privacy were. So we had to change the way we operate to accommodate that. Germany is an extreme example, but no two countries are ever the same and we built those privacy considerations [for Germany].

“In many ways new tech is always a little concerning to people. Like caller ID on [cell]phones — that was concerning when it was a new thing, now it’s accepted and agreed to be a useful feature. You have to draw a contrast between how many people use and the minority that are relatively loud. For us, it’s about enhancing the use of Google Maps and we know that that increases by 20% at least when Street View functionality is added, making it the most popular web-mapping site on the planet.”

The new images will go live on Google Street View over the next 24 hours. – guardian.co.uk