Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Smile! The Google car is watching you.

     The Suburu Impreza is not the kind of car that normally gets the kiddies pressing their faces to the car window on a road trip. No snarling Ferrari this. But it wasn't an ordinary compact car either that we encountered blasting down I-80 through the blankness of Indiana. Rather, it was one of the fleet of vehicles that Google Inc. has dispatched all over the world, taking pictures for their Google Street View application. Hard to believe, but they have been doing it for six years now -- in 2007, they had seven cities roughly photographed. Now they have 3,000 covered, with the ambitious goal of photographing every inch of the civilized world and much of nature as well.
     The project has not been without controversy, particularly overseas, where they take privacy more seriously than in the U.S., though 38 U.S. states sued Google, not for the photos, which are stitched together digitally to create 360 degree panoramas, but for hoovering up electronic data — passwords, emails, even medical records — from unprotected wi-fi networks as they drove along. Google promised to stop, and paid a $7 million fine, which is a rounding error on the company's daily profits.
     My boys wanted me to drive alongside the car, not only so they could eyeball the colorful vehicle, but so that our silver 2005 Odyssey might actually appear on Google Street View and thus achieve immortality. I did as they asked, though at first I was a little resentful. These are the same boys who shrug at being in my newspaper columns, and are completely indifferent to appearing in my books. Ho-hum, de nada. But to get the family van into Google Street View? That's significant. 
     Relax, I told myself. One must adapt to the times. Sneering at the Google Street View car is the 2013 version of "Pop Hates the Beatles." Why not get excited? Of course it's wonderful. It is indeed very cool. You must admire the nerve of a company that set out to map the earth and offer the result to its customers for free. I've used Street View myself, to eyeball a building that I might have otherwise jumped in the car to go look at (convenient as hell, though not exactly an improvement in investigative rigor. Google Street View notwithstanding, it's still better to get your ass out of the chair and go look). Sending these compact cars skittering over the planet's surface might not be exactly the same as raising the pyramids or constructing St. Peter's Basilica. But it comes from the same impulse toward mastery, toward grandeur, toward taking on a seemingly impossible task and doing it.
    We drove along, snapping pictures, until one of us wondered whether the bearded gent driving the Google car might not mind being tailed and photographed. Which gave us all a laugh, given that he was part of a company criss-crossing all seven continents in a global like-it-or-not invasion of everybody else's privacy, if that isn't already an antique term. He had better not mind; turn-about is fair play. 
Photos by Kent Steinberg


  1. Neil,

    If someone steals your info, why isn't it treated as a crime? Let the Lords of Google spend some time in the local lockup and they might better understand the value of privacy.

  2. David: That's an interesting question, although a lawyer would ask what is your expectation of privacy on a public street? If the New York Times can shoot your photo, splashing your toes in a fountain for its "hot weather" front page, why shouldn't Google? The end result, alas, is the government tracking your ever move as you step out the front door, 25 years hence. But I'm not sure how we avoid that.

  3. I remember party lines on the telephone. You never knew what neighbor was listening in to your conversation. As a child I also discovered it was boring to listen in on the neighbors. So much for privacy. It's not what it's cracked up to be.

  4. Agreed. When Jewel started trading access to your purchasing information for a discount, people howled as if Big Brother were prying into their bedroom. I had to point out that good old Mr. Whipple, in the ideal Mayberry's of our fond rememberings, certainly knew what you were buying.

  5. Now the anti-privacy people think they won by getting Jewel to suspend their loyalty program.

    Only problem is they installed 50-150 HD cameras in the store rafters. And they're not to prevent shoplifting. :) More like being there to scan your face, track your purchases, and then track your Point of Sale at the register.

    Only if some people knew of the privacy they didn't have...

  6. @Bob -- there was an article in the New York Times today about the difficulty of doing that. I somehow doubt that Jewel is on the cutting edge. Half of our concern for privacy is, I believe, disguised vanity. We believe we are of more interest than we actually are. Just a theory.


Comments are vetted and posted at the discretion of the proprietor.