Science & Technology

Private Parts, Public Streets

Google hits the streets. Will we get screwgled?


If you lack directional sense, as I do (and especially if you recently moved to Boston, as I have), you probably place calls like this one a semi-regular basis:

Me: Hi, are you at a computer?

Hapless Victim: Yup.

Me: I'm going around and around in a roundabout where Alewife Brook Parkway and Concord Ave. intersect. I'm lost! Google map it and help me find the movie theater.

And because I tend to choose someone who is related to me by blood for this task, they usually oblige me with a quick hit on Google Maps to straighten me out and set me on my way.

In circumstances like this one, your best bet in the bad old days was to call your destination, get an indifferent 17-year-old ticket taker on the line after navigating a phone tree, and then hope that her vague directions do more good than harm. The thing about local knowledge, of course, is that not all of it is high quality, nor is it easily transferable.

Now Google has kicked it up a notch, offering street level views in amazing detail of large chunks of major cities, including San Francisco, New York, and Denver. You can move up and down streets, and zoom in on storefronts and pedestrians. The images were captured over a period of many months by roving be-camerad cars.

Naturally, people are freaking out. Consider the charmingly ironic case of Mary Kalin-Casey, who fretted that you could make out her cat sitting in the window of her house in one of Google's snaps. She was featured in an article in the New York Times last week, complete with a photo of Kalin-Casey snuggling the violated feline.

Google makes infinitely more information available about most people though its ordinary search engine than any picture caught by a passing car could include. But there has always been something about images that makes people particular jumpy. Check out one of the earliest judicial versions of this privacy complaint, from a Harvard Law Review article written in 1890 by Samuel Warren and future Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis:

"Instantaneous photographs and newspaper enterprise have invaded the sacred precincts of private and domestic life….For years there has been a feeling that the law must afford some remedy for the unauthorized circulation of portraits of private persons; and the evil of invasion of privacy by the newspapers, long keenly felt, has been but recently discussed by an able writer."

Some on-the ground, local knowledge remains the province of true locals for now, of course. At the moment, the limited scope and "frozen in time" aspect of the Google feature (and its Microsoft competitor) lets most people keep their edge. They still know what time the neighborhood school lets out, clogging the street with kids, or when the bridge will freeze in winter. But those barriers could easily be broken soon as well—check out Google Traffic, for starters.

For now, the people, animals, and license plates captured in these images are little more than a collection of fascinating street photography. They're already out of date by the time they're posted, and there's no infrastructure being built to gather them in real-time. But the fear that the images will eventually be a full time, publicly accessible feed of what's happening on our street, in our driveway, in front of our homes, and even though our windows makes some people understandably nervous.

To see more images captured from Street View, check out StreetViewr, which lets readers submit their own discoveries, like this picture of someone sleeping, or this one, in which the Google van captures a record of its own lawbreaking. Or this one, where two guys watch a woman bend over to tie her shoes. (If you need more guidance in using Street View, there's a weird little introductory video featuring a nerd in an orange unitard.)

Even our fascination with silly snaps like these demonstrate an important point: Information is power, and information known only to you is an advantage that you hold over other people. We like having knowledge to ourselves, like secret routes to avoid traffic, or the fact that your hot neighbor always leaves her blinds open. Having private knowledge, or knowledge shared only with a small group of friends or neighbors, is a defense against bigger, stronger entities.

As more information is aggregated without the need for individual cooperation, people become anxious that the information they hold is less valuable, that it covers a smaller scope, that it gives them less power. We fear the futuristic dystopias of bad sci-fi movies where the police know our particular habits and habitats better than we do.

Others aren't into Big Brother deepthink; they're just afraid they'll get caught doing something naughty. BoingBoing offers a neologism: screwgled. "As in 'My wife caught me leaving a strip club on Google Street View, I got screwgled!'"

There are upsides, though. Wouldn't it be nice to have a live feed on your parked car, so that you could run out and prevent a ticket if you saw this? Yes, burglars could watch to see when you left for work, but you could watch your house for possible attempted burglaries, too.

I'm looking forward to Street View in Boston, so that the person I call can see more or less exactly what I'm seeing. I'll be able to get the kind of directions that I love to give, the kind that torture the men in my life: "Left at the 7-11," "There will be a Piggly Wiggly on your right, just after the big blue house with tacky lawn furniture."

Easy for me to say that now: No one has caught me coming out of a strip club.

Katherine Mangu-Ward is an associate editor of reason.

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