Saturday, April 04, 2009

So we laughed did we when George Orwell wrote "1984" - think again!

British first edition cover 1949
Britons Block Google Street View Van
The Associated Press
April 3, 2009

LONDON — You're never far from a camera in Britain, a country that has accepted the presence of millions of surveillance cameras in its streets, shopping centres and public spaces.

But for the villagers of Broughton in southern England, the roving eye of Google was one camera too far.

A gaggle of residents in the affluent hamlet formed a human chain to turn away a car shooting images for Google Street View, the popular service that allows Internet users to see high-quality photos of houses and streets around the world.

Broughton's tiny victory for people power is the latest sign of concern about the U.S. Internet juggernaut's collection of vast amounts of data, from satellite photos on Google Earth to the searches performed by Internet users and the shopping habits of e-mail users.

“I was upstairs when I spotted the camera car driving down the lane,” villager Paul Jacobs told the London Times. “My immediate reaction was anger: How dare anyone take a photograph of my home without my consent?”

Mr. Jacobs quickly rounded up his neighbours, who blocked the road and forced the car to retreat.

The local police force confirmed it had been called to the village Wednesday by “reports of a dispute between a crowd of people and a Google Street View contractor.”

“They felt his presence was an intrusion of their privacy,” Thames Valley Police said in a statement sent Friday to The Associated Press. “When police arrived at the scene, the car had moved on.”

Street View debuted in the United States in 2007 and has since spread to countries including France, Italy, Spain, Australia and Japan. It launched in Britain last month, sparking a debate about freedom of information and the right to privacy.

Street View has sparked concern elsewhere as well. In the United States, Google removed images of shelters for battered women.

In the Netherlands, concerns have been raised about the safety of anyone trying to photograph Amsterdam's Red Light district. So far, Google's images stop just outside the district.

In Italy, consumer groups have raised a variety of concerns and asked Google to put visual and sound warnings on the cars that take its Street View pictures.

“People feel sensitive about their local area, about their home, and digitization in great detail of those images threatens a great many people,” said Simon Davies of the London-based watchdog Privacy International.

For months, Google's Street View vehicle — a car with a pole-mounted revolving camera protruding from the top — has been roaming the streets of Britain, capturing 360-degree images of streets, and the people on them.

Since the service launched, millions of Britons have gone online to look at their own houses or landmarks like the Houses of Parliament. But some government buildings and the area around the prime minister's Downing Street home have been removed.

Google says the technology is legal, useful and non-intrusive. To preserve privacy, individuals' faces and car licence plates are obscured by pixilation.

“All the information on Street View is the same as you would find on a property website or walking down the street yourself,” said Google spokesman Anthony House.

But, he added, “it's a new technology and so I think it is understandable that people will be unhappy with it.”

Mr. House said Google would remove any image on request, which can be done by clicking a link on the Street View website.

Google's British communications chief, Peter Barron, told the BBC that the company had received “a few hundred” such requests.

Pictures that have been taken down — after they were widely run in the press — include one of a man walking out of a sex shop and another of a worse-for-wear reveller throwing up on the sidewalk outside a London pub.

Apart from privacy concerns, some worry that Street View helps criminals scope out targets for burglary or car theft.

In Germany, officials in the northern town of Molfsee vowed last year to stop Google from photographing anywhere in town. Conservative council leader Reinhold Harwart was quoted in the local newspaper as saying letting in Street View would be “opening house and home to criminals.”

That was also a worry for Broughton's villagers, concerned that burglars would target their large, comfortable houses.

A spokeswoman for Thames Valley Police said there was “no evidence to suggest Google Street View is causing an increase in burglaries.”

“However,” she said, “we want to reassure residents we will be keeping a close eye on this.”

Just what the villagers asked for: more surveillance.


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