Category: Privacy


A View of Google Street View

Is this your backyard? It could be—it could be online for everyone to see thanks to Street View, one of Google Maps newer features.

The program, first implemented for select cities in 2007, has spawned several privacy-related controversies over the unscrupulous capture of everything from celebrities and cats in windows to domestic violence shelters and men leaving strip clubs. (A good list of early responses to Street View is available on the Boingboing tech blog.)

Nonetheless, if you haven’t used Street View, you should at least give it a looksee. The program offers more than just a way to explore neighbours yards. Street View also allows you to see the streetside sights of Tokyo, London, Paris, and numerous other cities for free by providing an interactive worms-eye view to complement Google Maps’ birds-eye. Google streetcars have already patrolled cities across all continents save Antarctica, and their reach expands daily:

Starting Street View is easy. Just open google map, zoom to the preferred urban locale. Now grab the orange “pegman” (the little guy standing above the zoom bar) and drag-and-drop him onto the highlighted section of asphalt you’d like to visit. (For more help, Google offers several videos to teach new users how to navigate Street View.)

If you’ve chosen a road near a landmark, like the Eiffel tower, Big Ben, and so on, Google has added an extra feature to enhance your experience. Namely, photodecks drawn from google images. The decks offer pictures of your preferred locale under different lighting and weather conditions, and from closer-up; and as you navigate around, the photo-decks change to match your perspective.

Your experience is limited only by your monitor’s resolution—and the fact you’re not actually there to enjoy the sounds, smells, and climate that accompanies the sights. But Google might one day change that too, making things a little bit more real, and creepier.

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So maybe you’ve a child, a nephew or niece, or a younger sibling who uses Facebook to communicate and wants you in the loop. Or maybe you’ve an acquaintance that won’t stop pestering you to enlist. Either way, you’re mildly curious about joining, but also concerned about what your page will reveal and to whom.

You’re not alone.

Since its inception Facebook has been embroiled in a string of controversies: once in 2006 for implementing a newsfeed feature that broadcasted users’ remote actions (e.g., like unfriending someone); again in 2009 for making friends lists public by default for anyone to read; and again in early 2010 when an online security consultant Ron Bowles collected then distributed data from 100 million Facebook users.

The site’s continued wrangling over its privacy settings has even earned it some particularly sharp criticism from down under.

Thus Facebook has proven a constant source of anxiety over privacy and raised some serious questions over how much access friends, familiy, prospective employers, or even the law should have to our personal lives. Detractors have accused Facebook of subverting democracy; while supporters have claimed Facebook is merely responding to a natural evolution in societal values. Either way, Facebook has become a flashpoint for controversy in a way which other social networking sites just haven’t.

Despite the controversies, however, Facebook has still managed to grow to become the number-one  social networking site, beating out MySpace in 2008. The site now has over 500 million members and is slated to grow even further.

So how does one deal with this social megalith? How do you keep your private information safe?

Thankfully Facebook has responded to public pressure and provided a new “simplified” array of profile settings to help keep the spooks and stalkers out. Those options aren’t always easy to find; Facebook keeps them buried in separate and unintuitive places. But a little digging can excavate them and allow you to opt out.

If you’re still unsatisfied, there’s always the age-old tactic of taking an alias and posting as a Guy Incognito or an Iam Huiam.