Google’s most controversial feature

Google’s most controversial feature

My colleague Ben Pauker has a great list up of the interesting political uses that people are finding for Google Earth. But judging by today’s headlines, the company’s most controversial product by far is Street View, the feature in Google Maps that provides ground level photographs of any given address. 

Police in South Korea today raided Google’s offices in Seoul and seized a number of computers as part of an investigation into data collected over WiFi networks by the company’s Street View cars:

South Korea is one of many countries – including the UK – investigating the data collected by Google’s Street View cars. The search giant has admitted to accidentally intercepting fragments – amounting to 600MB – of personal data through Wi-Fi networks in more than 30 countries as it sought to map towns and cities.

In May this year, Alan Eustace, a senior vice president in engineering and research at Google, wrote on the company’s blog: "It is now clear that we have been mistakenly collecting samples of payload data from open Wi-Fi networks, even though we never used that data in any Google products."

Meanwhile in Germany, the company announced that Street View would finally launch,  but only after making modifications to the program to allow Germans to block out their houses. 

Uniquely for Germany, however, Google will launch a campaign Wednesday informing citizens concerned about safety or privacy how they can have pictures of their homes or businesses pixelled out before they are published.

"Renters or owners can apply to have their building made unrecognisable before the pictures are published online" from next week, the company said.

Google already blocks out people’s faces and car number plates in the other countries featured on Street View and will also do so in Germany.

German privacy advocates are still not satisfied, though the company notes that Germans are among the features most active users when planning trips abroad.

Worldwide, it’s estimated that nearly half of the 60 legal or criminal investigations being faced by Google are related to Street View. But the seeming contradiction of a feature that makes people distinctly uncomfortable, yet continues to grow in popularity, is one that seems to hold true for nearly all Google’s products.

As AFP article notes, Germany has some of the world’s toughest laws on privacy, owing largely to its past experiences with Nazism and Communism. Admittedly, it’s terrifying to think what the Stasi or Gestapo might have done with the personal data that millions voluntarily pour into Google’s various products every day, but my guess is that the country’s unease about privacy wont stand up long to Google’s convenience.