Our house, in the middle of the web

 

It’s all very well when your house pops up on Google Street View, but in publishing pictures of children, is the company crossing a moral line? ask DEBBIE ORME

AS THE MOTHER of a six-year-old girl, I am very familiar with the notes home from school asking for permission to film or photograph my child. It’s a sad indictment on society that these measures are necessary, but such are the times we live in.

Which is why I was horrified to discover that, thanks to Google Street View’s images of Belfast, my daughter was in full view on the internet.

Google Street View is the company’s new mapping tool, which provides a photographic 360-degree view of streets across the country. The format has been controversial even before it was introduced to the UK at the beginning of March, but until a few weeks ago, my attitude to the website was at best indifferent.

There was the community protest in Broughton in Cambridgeshire, where residents forced the camera car to leave the area; the furious wife who called in divorce lawyers after spotting her husband’s car parked outside another woman’s house; the agoraphobic woman who was finally able to leave her house after 24 years, thanks to Street View. For me, though, the media reports about complaints about Street View had simply been background noise

My indifference changed, however, when a friend told me that my daughter was clearly visible on Google pictured outside her grandparents house. I went to the page on the web and immediately followed the “easy to remove images from Street View” instructions on the Google site and requested that the entire scene be removed. About five minutes later, I had an email saying: “According to our records, you recently submitted a report regarding an inappropriate image in Street View on Google Maps. We are currently reviewing the material you reported to determine whether the image should be removed from the product. We appreciate your assistance. Yours sincerely, The Google Maps Team.”

I’d hardly finished reading the message when I immediately e-mailed back, to point out that it was not for them to determine whether the image should be removed. I wanted it removed and removed now.

By the following morning the car-registration number had been pixelated. I could hardly type fast enough to point out (in strong language, I should add) that my daughter was actually more important to me than a car.

There was no reply.

In the ensuing four weeks I rang the Google number from the website on numerous occasions and only ever succeeded in obtaining a voicemail service. I replied on at least four occasions to the e-mail from the Google Maps Team, but never received a response. Every time I checked the image, nothing had been done.

Exasperated by the lack of action, I contacted the NSPCC, who told me that it was a police matter. When I contacted the PSNI, its spokesman, although sympathetic, pointed out: “As this is a civil matter, police are likely to advise anyone with concerns to contact the site provider.” Been there, done that, could recite the voicemail message.

Who, I wondered, would take responsibility for this? What does Joe Public do when he’s trying to contact Big Brother and Big Brother won’t answer the phone or reply to e-mails?

  problem with Street View as such – if it had been a picture of me, it would not have troubled me. It’s simply the fact that if we go to such lengths to protect our children on a daily basis, then Google should be doing the same.

It would be lovely to think that our children could be featured on the internet and we could log on to share images with our friends. But we all know that we don’t live in a world like that.

Eventually, while writing this piece, I contacted the Google press office for its view of my experience and, on investigation, I was told that there appeared to be a “glitch” in the system, which had resulted in my image not being removed. No trace could be found of the e-mails that I had sent and there was no record of my complaint, bar the original e-mail. The image was, however, removed within the hour.

A Google spokesperson said: “We’re concerned to hear of any cases where people believe there may have been a problem with a removals request. The vast majority of people have been able to use this tool effectively and images have been removed quickly. If a user finds an image that they consider objectionable, they can report it by clicking on ‘report a problem’ in the bottom left corner of the Street View image where a short request form is completed to identify the exact image.

“In rare circumstances, a submission may have been made with incomplete information, which could delay removal.”

Google is not doing anything illegal and only this week the Information Commissioner’s Office in London rejected objections over the site, saying that it does not constitute a threat to personal privacy, and comparing it to televised football matches when people can be caught on camera.

That Google is so quick (apparently) to remove or blur images would indicate to me that while it knows what it is doing is not illegal, it certainly goes over the line of what’s right and what’s wrong.

Although an adult nipping in to a sex shop is taking the risk of being photographed by Street View or by another person in the street, should a six-year-old child on her bike – and, more importantly, her parents – not have the right to choose whether or not she appears on the internet?

CAUGHT IN THE ACT STREET VIEW GOES GLOBAL

You might have seen the car. It is a perfectly ordinary mid-market vehicle, except for one distinguishing feature: it has a huge black camera on the roof, not unlike a submarine periscope.

It’s been spotted across Ireland, as Google catalogue’s Irish cities for the latest launch of Street View. When the internet giant did this in Britain, it led to huge controversy and when Street View finally includes its panoramic, eye-level views of Ireland, it will attract a similar reaction here.

Street View is an adjunct to Google Maps and Google Earth, whose satellite images already give the online world a glimpse into your back garden, and have attracted coverage for a variety of serious, and not so serious, reasons.

Just as it’s been useful for searching out archaeological sites or looking at missile sites in North Korea, it offered more than a few silly-season winners - such as the supposed “discovery” of Atlantis.

Likewise, Street View has thrown up supposed ghost sightings, and other silly-story staples, but it is the issue of privacy that has been most interesting. Since it launched in May 2007, initially in the US, Street View has been an extremely popular addition, not least because of its ingenuity. It is undeniably fascinating to be able to zoom in to a city street somewhere and start moving along it in close-up. But it also threw up all sorts of pratfalls, burglars in mid-break-in, flashers and the like.

However, the privacy issue has been to the fore. In the UK, Google took to blurring faces and went so far as to blur an image of Bobby Sands from a wall mural.

However, this week, the Information Commissioner’s Office in the UK rejected complaints about Street View. It said that in a world of social networking, Google’s actions don’t constitute a breach of privacy, especially if Google pixelates car-licence plates, faces and removes individual images when asked.

A judge in Pennsylvania also recently rejected claims that Street View is an invasion of privacy, on the basis that homes are on public view anyway.

At the moment, the residents of Belfast have experienced the strange sensation of knowing that Google has its eyes on their homes. When the rest of the island’s cities go online, the reaction will be as fascinating as the technology. SHANE HEGARTY