Thursday, 19 March 2009

The world outside your window

Google unveiled its newest feature today: Google Street View. Already launched in a number of places elsewhere in the world, this impressive project today added 25 UK cities to its pages. All you have to do is go to Google Maps, pick a location, click and drag the little orange man to any of the roads outlines in blue, and you can have a nose around.

My initial reaction was astonishment at the sheer scale of the undertaking. Wonderful possibilities popped into my head - checking out what the route to a new place was like before visiting it; giving extra directions to colleagues who were coming to our building for the first time; enhancing my (admittedly rather dormant) London Street Guide.

Once I had got over my excitement at being able to 'wander around' familiar central London locations, on a whim I did a quick search for my house. And it was there. When they said they were including whole cities they really, really meant it.

It's hard not to feel slightly perturbed. I meant - having a visual database of commercial and public buildings is pretty cool. But ordinary residential property? I reckon I could work out to within a couple of weeks when the photo was taken, based simply on the arrangements of cars on our street and the flowers in bloom in our front garden. It seems to me there are many ways in which this could be used for less than positive things. Google Maps' satellite feature has already been exploited by teenagers who used it to work out which houses had swimming pools they could invade. Apart from being a stalker's dream, surely Street View has potential for such pleasantries as identifying places with a lot of expensive cars, checking which properties had burglar alarms or security weaknesses, making assumptions about potential employees' socioeconomic status etc?

Sure, one could glean the same information by actually visiting the places in real life. But this makes it an awful lot easier. Given that the government are sufficiently paranoid that we're supposed to jump at the sight of photographers and mobile phone enthusiasts, it's surprising that the authorities are at ease with this. And how does this sit with point 6 of Google's ten things?

Perhaps this is just the way things will go. The early web was was created by the chosen few. Web 2.0 has been Joe Public's domain. Maybe another volte-face will lead to Web 3.0 consisting of those in the know imparting information about Joe Public? The pace of change in technology is hard to halt. Perhaps the best thing is just to embrace it. So here's a suggestion for the next phased of Google Maps:

Google CCTV.

Because 5 million cameras can't be wrong.

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