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Google's-eye street view: Not everyone is so happy

The Baltimore Sun

It's been a couple of weeks now since Google Maps' new Street View feature launched, and the mix of enthusiasm and criticism has been constant ever since.

Google's latest feature offers people street-level images of the streets and avenues of several American cities. The impressive result allows computer users to travel through neighborhoods and see much of what a person actually in those cities would see.

The project is a stunning act of ingenuity and effort on the part of the innovative search giant, which spent more than a year compiling the still images from digital cameras attached to the top of cars and vans. But Google's visionary project has proven to be a little too visionary for some.

In the process of capturing pedestrian-level photos of city streets, Street View also captured the randomness of American urban life, and the results have ranged from amusing in some cases to disturbing in others. Several blogs have begun compiling some of the more interesting images, and while many bloggers have been delighted by what's been found, others have been upset by what they view as an invasion of privacy.

On the lighter side, there's an image of a sword-wielding ninja, a van in a parking lot that looks uncannily like the Scooby Doo Mystery Machine, what appears to be a headless man crossing a street and a host of goofy street signs.

But other images have captured more personal moments: sunbathing women in bikinis, drivers in fender-benders and acts of public urination. One image shows a man who appears to be suspiciously scaling a wall into an apartment. Another image shows a woman leaning over in a vehicle to reveal her thong underwear. Another captures a man entering an adult bookstore. And another shows a well-known homeless man in San Jose, Calif., who has since been killed in an attack.

Some photos have revealed people sneaking into work late. One displayed a smoker who later admitted to a reporter that he had been trying to keep the habit secret from his family. And a San Francisco Bay-area resident voiced privacy concerns after discovering an image that peered into her home to reveal her cat. "I'm all for mapping, but this feature literally gives me the shakes," wrote Mary Kalin-Casey on the blog Boing Boing.

And then there are the images of New York's Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, where cameras have been banned since the Sept. 11 attacks. As of last week, those images were still in Street View.

"It is irresponsible for Google to debut a product like this without also debuting technological measures that would obscure the identities of people photographed by this product," Kevin Bankston, staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told CNet News last week. Bankston, the smoker who was outed in one of the images, said he had greater concerns for people who were captured entering and exiting sensitive locations like domestic violence shelters, Alcoholics Anonymous sites and religious and political venues.

Google, though, has stressed the public-domain nature of the project.

"Street View only features imagery taken on public property," the company said in a written statement. "This imagery is no different from what any person can readily capture or see walking down the street. We provide easily accessible tools for flagging inappropriate or sensitive imagery for review and removal."

Ultimately, the things that have proven to be so exciting yet sometimes unnerving about Street View are the same things that are so exciting and unnerving about cities themselves. You might enjoy the scenery, but you never quite know what you'll find around the next corner.

Virtual tourists be warned.

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