A Google-induced privacy debate that began on the coasts earlier this year lands in Chicago on Tuesday, when anyone with a computer will now be able to see what's growing in your front yard if you live in the city.
A Google Maps feature called "Street View" allows users to home in on a picture of a building, an intersection, street signs and just about anything, including people, that was in the camera's viewfinder when a picture was snapped.
These images are strung together to give a 360-degree view of a street scene. A new wrinkle will be added to the version launching Tuesday: Users can look up to see many of Chicago's architectural treasures.
Google has rolled out Street View in nine U.S. cities so far, including San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles. Tuesday's upgrade adds Chicago and five other major cities, including Philadelphia and Phoenix.
To use the service, go to maps.google.com. Type in "Chicago, IL" and click on Street View.
The application "is very powerful," said Stephen Chau, Google's product manager for Street View. For example, "if you're looking for a new apartment, you can look around the area to see what the neighborhood looks like."
You also might be able to see a building's front door, clearly read the address and recognize the people sitting on the porch. It's that level of detail that has alarmed privacy advocates.
"We receive about 100 complaints a week from people trying to remove their address from Street View," said Parry Aftab, who runs Wiredsafety.org, an Internet privacy group. "We've tried a couple of times to get Google to remove the addresses, and we haven't gotten the response we've hoped for yet. I think we'll have to ratchet it up."
Almost immediately after Street View launched in late May, bloggers began posting pictures of people walking down the street or girls in bikinis sunbathing at a park with images so sharp the people could be identified.
"We have various degrees of resolution that allow you to zoom in and get some details," Chau said.
It is unclear at this point how detailed the images embedded into the Chicago maps will be because Google didn't provide a preview of the service before its launch.
Chau would not say how far the maps stretch into Chicago.
"It goes beyond the core of the downtown area, but we don't have the boundaries for how far," he said. "I can't provide those details."
The images are taken from public streets, so they are legal.
But Michael Overing, who teaches Internet law at the University of Southern California, said this "seems like an intrusion we should all be against."
"I appreciate that the technology is cool," he said, "but whether it is the government or a private company that has access to those images and can do something with them based on their definitions" of what's right and wrong is "a fundamental risk."
Google says the images are only of the street, but digital images provide a depth of detail that wasn't available 10 years ago, Overing pointed out.
"I don't know how the data will be used in the future, and that scares me," he said.
Chau, however, said that if someone doesn't like what's depicted in an image, there are procedures to have it removed.
There's a link to report an inappropriate image. Click on the link and a screen pops up asking if the image contains "inappropriate content," if it "infringes on my privacy," or if it "presents personal security concerns."
If Google agrees there is a concern, it will remove an image from its database, Chau said.
But Aftab said that has not worked well so far and her organization "is very concerned about it."
Despite the privacy concerns, the service is intriguing. It can help people visualize directions, Chau said, or provide more compelling business listings.
The service only works on a computer. Chau wouldn't comment on when a mobile application could be available.
The three other cities joining Chicago, Philadelphia and Phoenix in the Google Map update Tuesday are Pittsburgh; Portland, Ore.; and Tucson, Ariz.
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