Google spies on America.

Culture and technology.
June 8 2007 4:02 PM

Google Spy

Zooming in on neighbors, nose-pickers, and sunbathers with Street View.

Google Street View
Google Street View

As Google grows older, it's becoming that kid who brings an M-80 to the neighborhood barbecue. While everyone else is goofing off with sparklers, Google blows up a trash can and freaks out the entire block. The latest explosion is Google Street View. The free-sushi-eating Googleheads dreamed up the idea to send a camera-equipped van to take 360-degree shots around the streets of San Francisco, Las Vegas, New York, Denver, and Miami. Cool, right? Then the service launched last Tuesday, and Mary Kalin-Casey discovered that she could see her cat Monty in the window of her apartment. If you zoom in, you can tell that Monty is a tabby.

Kalin-Casey expressed her privacy concerns to the site BoingBoing, and she was joined by a gaggle of commenters who felt that Google had crossed a line by photographing people's homes, cars, and garbage cans. The race was on to find the most alarming and actionable image. Promising candidates included the two men entering a cannabis club in San Francisco, the interior shot of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel (a no-no since 9/11), and the guy standing outside a strip joint. Google responded with an unassailable position: "Street View only features imagery taken on public property and is not real time. This imagery is no different from what any person can readily capture or see walking down the street." Google provides a page to report images that should be removed. The company also worked with domestic-violence shelters to keep those places private.

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What Street View demonstrates is the magnifying effect of technology, especially Google technology. People drive by the Stanford campus every day and see attractive co-eds searching for the optimum tanning angle. But when those same co-eds are captured by the Google camera, the men of the Web go a little crazy and 100 links to the "Girls of Escondido Road" bloom. Or, let's say you are driving down the road and see a shirtless dude with a backward baseball cap urinating by the speed-limit sign. Probably not the most enjoyable sight in the world. Through the magic of Google, though, a star is born. (Update: The image has been taken down, but can be seen here.) No naked women standing in windows have been uncovered yet, despite some serious effort.

Street View reveals its creepy potential most in the Bay Area and environs, where the images are of a higher resolution than the other cities. Compare this wide shot and this close-up on Market Street in San Francisco, to this wide shot and this close-up in New York City. The woman in the orange shirt in New York, by the way, is Slate art director Vivian Selbo, who happened to be talking to some random stranger in Army fatigues when the Google van passed by. While many people have found their cars on Street View, Viv is one of the few to have found herself.

I could spend all day reeling off the hijinks—the unfortunate thong woman (which has now been taken down), the Google employees who knew the van was coming, the nose-picker, E.T.—but let's stop and think about the future for a moment. Unlike some other dubious Google projects (ahem, patents), Street View will be of genuine value to the scholar who, 20 years from now, wants to study, say, the ratio of Priuses to SUVs in Palo Alto driveways, or variations in California ranch-house style. It's also fairly great right now, as a way to scout out a neighborhood or to stroll through the Presidio during a lunch break. But the streets of America are not exactly … alive. Classic urban encounters such as man-ogles-woman are difficult to find, while you can spend entire afternoons strolling down sunny, quiet suburban streets that could pass for outtakes from a Hopper painting.

Google will certainly take Street View to the next level of sophistication, and I have a few suggestions. Resist the temptation to use live cameras (that will really make the privacy folks go insane). Take this international. I want to walk through the favelas of Rio from the safety of my laptop. I want to examine the ruins of Cherynobyl without ruining my kidneys. I want to glimpse shami kabob in the markets of Kabul. I want to see a shirtless guy peeing in Tehran.

Michael Agger is an editor at The New Yorker. Follow him on Twitter.

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