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Google Street View: Bloody unreal!

This contribution has been submitted to Webdiary by a student in the Online Journalism unit for the Masters in Media Practice and Masters in Publishing courses at The University of Sydney as part of the unit's assessment. The topics covered in the pieces awaiting publication are interesting – and diverse. We hope that Webdiarists will enjoy reading them, as well as giving these aspiring journalists plenty of constructive commentary.


Google Street View: Bloody unreal!
by Larissa Varela

In this digital age, when people are getting quite comfortable with shopping, learning, socialising and even managing their bank accounts online, why is having an online picture of the front of their houses becoming so controversial? Is Google Street View really invading our privacy?

In the US, not only has Google Inc. been sued for filming homes located on private streets, but it has also been heavily criticised for including pictures of people in compromising postures and places, and some groups such as Stop Internet Predators have gone as far as implying that Street View facilitates predators’ access to children.

It seems even the American retail sector, which in principle would have benefited from the service, has found Street View intrusive. A reaction that saw large portions of the fashionable Rodeo Drive wiped out of the service in order to prevent people from window shopping online.

In contrast, in Australia, where the service was introduced last month (August 5, 2008) the approach towards Street View has been surprisingly less controversial. However, is this relaxed reaction a result of Google’s decision to blur faces and number plates, or is there another explanation? The answer is rather simple: we Australians are less obsessed with our image and far more practical when it comes to technological developments than our American friends.

Fortunately, we have understood that Google Street View shows nothing other than pictures that anyone can take from a public space. We understand that public spaces are exactly that, public. Although at times it may seem unfair, the reality is that if you are at a public space the chances of you being caught by a CCTV camera, a speed camera, someone’s mobile camera or a Google camera are high. The only difference is that in Google’s case, you know who to contact to delete the image (or who to sue), not such a simple task if your un-blurred face ends up on YouTube.

Undoubtedly, privacy is not a minor issue for Australians, otherwise topics such as the introduction of a citizen card wouldn’t be so controversial. However, worrying about real privacy issues is one thing, while losing our common sense is quite another.

Of course we will complain and raise our voice – as we have – if Google decides to invade our private properties and upload pictures of them for the whole world to see. However, we won’t ask them to delete entire streets to avoid online window shopping, as we are intelligent enough to know that the shops will change their displays far more often than Google will update their images.

Unquestionably, Australia’s reaction towards Street View has been softer than in other countries, especially if you take into account that some media networks such as SMH.com.au had no problem creating photo galleries of “amusing” Street View shots, including the picture of man with a non-blurred face getting changed at a Western Australia beach.

Nevertheless, looking at the overall picture, Australia’s response to Street View and the issue of privacy is an example of common sense rather than a case of thoughtlessness. A practical approach suggesting we may have already surrendered to Google’s view that “complete privacy doesn’t exist”.


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You can have privacy - as long as it is public

Google's response to US citizen's privacy concerns that there is "no such thing as complete privacy" is spot on.There was the same uproar when Google Earth came along a few years ago but this is a non-issue right now .. as this will also be soon. The current critics of Street View fail to see the benefits of this application as a comprehensive database, no different from the search engine, the images database, the news links, the videos, the maps or any of the other Google application - hardly an 'invasion' of privacy (but in time, they will convert).However Larissa, I do object to the suggestion of a complete 'surrender' to Google, or any other new application that may be developed in the future, this blanket 'tick of approval' is an unhealthy approach and can lead to many undesired consequences. Proper consultation must be made amongst the public and the authorities before projects like these are carried out... I agree with Ern G on the point that "one has to consider what is best for the nation or community."


Suheil Damouny

Remember me

Ok: I'm the only naysayer.

Of course Street View is fun: no-one would watch it otherwise.

Of course Street View is crude: so far. But look at how Google Earth has evolved, and see the possibilities. It's where it is going that is the problem. Its huge endorsement must encourage it to turn up the heat on the frog.

Of course the immediate supporters among the older are the fearful concerned with catching the few various "baddies", be they tax avoiders or terrorists, and that looms as more important to them than any affect it may have on the multiplicity of ordinary citizens. What was the name of that book that Michael de Angelos recommends?

If it goes into video streaming, that will no doubt be a good thing. I can watch which husbands/ teens enter the local brothels, eg. What fun - I would enjoy that. Your boss will be able to know the real reason that you were late for work. You will know that your teenage daughter was actually at "Mansions" - (does it still exist?) - rather than her girlfriend's place. Your partner can track whether you were actually working late, or not. All good things.

I expect that everyone would end up living like me. Quietly. With decorum. A better society ...but, a little dull?

Suitable for the young? No.

Anyone of my age knows that privacy and freedom have shrunk largely since their childhood. But, that restrictions always come under the banner of progress.

As you happily surrender your right to privacy, remember later that comment that an older hates to say: I told you so.

Oh, and I am actually very happy that my home has stuffed up their street numbering. In the short term, that is.

Fellow student

Hi Larissa, I too am a US citizen who has had access to Street View for quite some time.

I don’t have one particular opinion of Street View, but rather, multiple opinions. On occasion it has been extremely helpful to me in order to find my way around Sydney - as an international student this is a major bonus - but, at times I can understand the frustrations and worries that some people may have with it, especially the ones who have children.

This piece is extremely opinionated, and there is nothing wrong with that; however, it may help you to prove your point or sway people to your side of the argument if you included more solid facts and more voices. Persuasion is a hard art to conquer. Maybe be a little more specific when talking about "overseas" what does that include?

I do give you kudos for relating both sides of the story. It is essential, even when you are trying to persuade an audience one way or another. But, I know how hard it can be to properly do so.

I like your article because it is extremely relevant. With all the changes and technological advances people are becoming more aware of these options and more familiar, which means more people using them and, especially, more people talking about them and voicing their opinions. As with absolutely anything - people can, and will, find ways to abuse them. However, that should not stop technological advancement.

Why they call it 'street' view

"...some groups such as Stop Internet Predators have gone as far as implying that Street View facilitates predators’ access to children."

Well, that's wholly consistent with the general climate of hysteria about paedophiles and the 'sexualisation' of children, each tied up with middle class guilt about neglecting one's own children in favour of pursuing higher levels of materialist consumption.

Then there's technophobia.

Recently I was mortified to discover that on Street View my place looks just like it does when viewed from the, er, street.

Like, anyone could just, you know, look at my place. From the street. They could see my garbage bins outside. And also my hydrangea bush. Wow.

I looked across the street from my place and there was my neighbour's place. Before he painted his porch.

I was really shocked. I mean, what next? Your private address and telephone number in White Pages Online?

Then there's phone cameras. Like, what are people doing with those, I wonder? Hmm?

Ian M (Ed): Good point, Eliot.

It's been obvious for a long time that things are turning nasty. That's why also, just to be on the safe side, we've been keeping an eye on you.

A big eye.

And we know your secret.


Picture windows

Ian: "And we know your secret"

My God, you saw them, didn't you? The curtains with the pattern facing out.

Technological advances

Street view is created by a car, a camera (VW beetle and 11 lens camera), and collation - there are no technological advances in it, as far as I can find out.

Where the tech advances are happening are in video surveillance: moving towards recognising people from bits of their faces, their gait etc, and tracking them, rather than focussing on a fixed scene and hoping that any faces are identifiable, (which largely they are not).

Video streaming is, of course, the next step.

Will we get to the scenario in Blind Faith, Ben Elton's latest book, where videos are in each apartment? Here come the totalitarian statements if you object: You must have something to hide. Or, Why don't you want to share?

And that, of course, is an interesting angle, John Walsh, that one should be aware of our lapses or foolishnesses being publicly exposed, and therefore we should modify our dress and behaviour accordingly.

How does this compare with the ban on taking photographs of children on beaches, in some swimming pools, etc?

Btw, Larissa: re Rodeo Drive. If I were a retailer of cutting edge products, I would not want months-old window dressings to be displayed. Are you sure that this was not their motive?

The view from here

Great choice of subject, Larissa. As you can see from the high number of comments it's a good topic to get people fired up about. I love Street View.  So what if a few straying husbands and boyfriends have been caught with their cars parked in front of the wrong house?  You're right, the photos have all been taken from a public space and don't reveal any more than someone casually walking or driving down the street could have seen. 

Morality and privacy are issues of behaviour not technology. You probably shouldn't pass out drunk on your front lawn dressed as an elf whether or not there's a chance you'll be snapped by a Google operative. Maybe to make it really interesting we need live streaming of Street View. Then you could really give the neighbours something to talk about. 

Other uses possible

It could be useful for the police, Larissa. Before they raid a place they can take a peek and see the layout of the street - see what is next door, see what sort of tree cover there is and so on.

The tax office might also see some use in being able to check out the shape and size of a residence of someone they think might be living beyond their stated means. It would save the taxpayer the cost of them driving out to take a peek. I mean, they are not going to pursue someone if they see a shack, but if they see a McMansion on Viewstreet, they just might see a need to check the balance sheets a bit closer.

Actually it is rather limited when you try to look at a battleaxe house. I tried to see how the development we did in Sydney for an estate panned out, what sort of houses they put on the four rear blocks, but you could only see the two front lots and the four down the back could not be accessed. So there might be an upsurge in sales for battleaxe blocks for those who want to remain out of sight. One assumes the cameras are not allowed down these private subdivision driveways where often four houses or more may exist.

Either way it does not bother me if anyone sees the front of this place. It is nothing special. There is certainly no money laundered in the laundry here. In any case the washing machine just died.

Privacy and FOI

G'day Larissa,

I cannot forget the statement of Liberal representative of North Sydney, "Jolly" Joe Hockey when he said: "Technology is the best friend of privacy".

There are, of course, many plusses and minuses in this discussion.

In an era of real or perceived terrorism we would want our powers that be to have a system of protection which, without abusing the basics of democracy, would protect us from extremists.

But, where is the balance? Big Brother? 1984?

In our town we have recently had problems regarding the distinction between freedom of information and privacy.

When you look at these two unfortunately diametrically opposed points of view, one has to consider what is best for the nation or community.

Then, these two pillars of democracy are to be decided by whatever government we have elected.

This applies at all levels of our society and is exploited by the people who would abuse our intentions to settle grudges.

Cheers Ern G.


Just what are these, Larissa Varela? I am genuinely interested to know.

With pleasure

Hi Claudia, thank you for your comment. I'm glad to see there are still some (in the US) who can see the advantages of technological developments beyond the fear and the paranoia.

What's wrong with....

"As people get older, they may go to more funerals than they would like..."

Of course, all the sentences imply that there is a certain number that they would like.

Well you two

Well you two were a lot of help, F Kendall and Malcolm B Duncan. I am none the wiser but I do take your point, F Kendall, about would like.

Marker's advice please

Dear Marker, I am struggling with the use of you and one. Let us see:

As you get older you get to go to more funerals than you would like ....

As one gets older, one gets to go to more funerals than one would like.... 

Which should one run with in a piece of prose on the subject of funerals?

Technically one should run with 'one' I suppose, but it makes a piece of prose a bit ponderous, does it not?

Abbey's Marker

Well, really, Jenny Hume, it does make one wonder.

Why not indeed?

As I said, Kathy Farrelly, it's good for stickybeaking.

Colonial responses

I'm unsure as to why US citizens respond with paranoia to 'Streetview' but think that Australians have the sort of response to privacy issues that could reasonably be expected from a nation with a convict background. For a long time in this country there really were only two types of people - convicts and gaolers. Aborigines didn't count as they were treated as a sort of human megafauna. So, gaolers maintained continual oversight on convicts. I think we have a deep psychological resistance to anyone exercising such oversight as well as a resistance to our fellow citizens conducting such oversight because we have a good working knowledge of how bad the bastards can be.

Hmmm. I see Malcolm B has become Malcolm the marker.

Ian M (Ed): Marker, Anthony? You don't know even half of it.


Neither you nor even Ian MacDougall know a percentage of it. I decided a long time ago not to pursue academia as a full-time career but ... it lingers. I supervise PhD students, I lecture, I stand up in the community, I write, I pontificate. What more could there be to intellectual life?

Harshest marker you have ever seen – but it works. Took me five years but, after I had done it, our team won the national Debating Championships. I do not joke about the people I know nor do I namedrop (I just drop the names I know). A number of current Federal politicians have suffered at my hands. Father Flemming, of recent comment, was an opponent from my youth. Been there. Haven't finished doing it.

Harshest teacher you have ever seen, and what results we get.

Busy Sunday? Doing King Lear with the Vinnies gels. I read, they get marks. Any additional audience welcome.

SWMBO (and she is a great teacher) hates the way I teach but gee it works for those who can take the flak.


Why are you a fan of Street View, Claudia....or anyone else? What is the fantastic ... or indeed useful service that it provides? Apart from stickybeaking, of course, which is always interesting.

Why not?

Well F kendall , my little 7 year old bloke just loves it. Googling up families and friends houses. His aid told me that today at school he was stuck on the computer for an hour, quite absorbed in Street View.

 Hey!  It's better than  him having a tantrum.

I'm a glass half full kinda girl.


Is "voice" in the first line of para 7 supposed to be singular? One voice? Or are we raising our voices?

There is no counterbalance in this article. It seems to assume that "privacy" is the same in Australia as elsewhere. Not so and the area is developing. The view of those qualified in the field, i.e. a quote from the NSW or Federal Privacy Commissioner would not go astray.

Thank you

As a U.S. citizen who is a Street View fan, I thank you for your balanced view. And perhaps for those of Australians, if what you say is true on their reaction to this fantastic (at least, to me) service. I'm amazed by the paranoid reactions of my own countrymen/women to what is a very useful service. It's ridiculous, and much of the reaction, I think, is based on ignorance and an assumption that "the world" is focused on any individual's property with an intent to burgle or commit some other heinous act. I have no doubt that some opportunists may take advantage of Street View; however, those people do what they do anyway, even without Street View.

Again, thanks.

Ian M (Ed) Welcome to Webdiary, Claudia. But please use your full name for future comments (see 'About Webdiary' at the top of the home page.) if you do not do so, your userid (and consequently any comments) will be deleted.

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