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Open Maps

By Annalee Newitz

ALOT OF PEOPLE have their panties in a twist over Google's new satellite maps feature. Get thee to a computer as fast as possible and try it out. Go to maps.google.com, then click on the teeny "satellite" link in the upper right-hand corner. Now you have a satellite map of the United States in front of you. You can plug your address into the search box and see your house. Holy crap, that's cool. Some cities, like Saskatoon (in Saskatchewan, Canada, for all you Yankees) are not yet in high-res. But you can still see the beautiful South Saskatchewan River and Saskatoon's famous bridges.

If experience is any guide, I'm willing to bet that once you start playing with Google satellite maps, you will become mesmerized and incapable of doing anything but searching for random shit like the hiking trail you walked last week or your grandmother's house in Texas. Mean time of obsession with flying around on the satellite map: 39 minutes.

But let us return to the aforementioned twisty panties. Many pundits and bloggers seem determined to view this feature of Google maps as a serious, scary new invasion of privacy. Let's get a few things straight, though. First of all, these kinds of satellite images have been available for decades from the U.S. Geological Survey to anyone with some cash.

For the past couple of years, there have been multiple online pay services (like ImageAtlas) offering these images in searchable formats, the same way Google is right now. In fact, Google added its satellite feature after buying one of those services, Keyhole, late last year. So all that's really changed today is that high-res, searchable satellite maps are free to the grubby masses of Google trawlers.

As somebody who advocates open access to information, it's hard for me to be completely unhappy about this development. I'll admit there's a dark side. Making these satellite images publicly available erodes one of the cornerstones of privacy law, the "reasonable expectation of privacy." When I know that anybody can Google for my address, then look at my neighborhood via satellite images, that definitely shrinks the boundaries of my private sphere. Hell, you can even see things like swimming pools and parking spaces in these photos. So I can no longer reasonably expect that the geography of my backyard—or the pathways to my house in a rural area—are safe from prying eyes.

Is my privacy compromised in a truly grievous way? I'm not so sure. Yes, a real estate agency could use these images to rate my neighborhood's desirability in some creepy way, but it's not as if they don't already do that. Nobody can use these photos to look into my windows or tap my phone line. And these shots aren't even in real time: Keyhole claims that they're updated roughly every 18 months—so it's not as if you can peek at whose cars are parked in my driveway right now.

There was a wacky legal case a few years back in which Barbra Streisand sued a nonprofit group called the California Coastal Records Project for invading her privacy with something very similar to Google satellite maps. The group had taken thousands of photographs of the California coastline from the air for historical preservation, and one of the pictures happened to contain a shot of Streisand's groovy beach palace. A judge rejected her suit because the tiny modicum of privacy she lost was not worth suppressing a worthy public project with such obvious educational and archival purposes. If you look at the picture in question (www.californiacoastline.org/
streisand/lawsuit.html), you'll see it was much more detailed than the Google satellite images and yet reveals almost nothing.

What annoys committed privacy advocates about the Google satellite fracas is that it distracts from far more dangerous ways our privacy is being invaded with new technologies. Most cell phones on the market today have global positioning systems in them that allow you to be tracked anywhere as long as your cell phone is on. Radio frequency ID tags, a few millimeters across, are sewn into your clothes and passport and library books. These can also be used to track where you're going every time you pass an RFID reader. Don't even get me started on hidden webcams in public places.

The problem is that these tracking technologies are invisible and complicated. So while everybody is wringing their hands over how simple it is for strangers to discover the color of their roofs on Google, we forget that we can already be tracked everywhere we go using cell phones and the RFID chips in Wal-Mart backpacks. And unlike Google satellite maps, there's no transparency with these tracking systems. You can't watch the watchers. So while I mourn poor Barbra Streisand's loss of privacy, it could be a lot worse. In fact, it already is.

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who saw your backyard on Google.

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From the April 13-19, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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