It's like déjà vu all over again for Google with privacy concerns related to its Street View Maps. The European Union, which earlier this week revealed that it is investigating antitrust accusations against Google, has asked Google to make some changes to the way it gathers and retains data for Street View Maps.
Street View has been met with significant backlash time and time again. Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Japan, and Greece have all expressed concern with Street View. Google has responded to those concerns by agreeing to blur out people's faces, license plate numbers, and other personally identifiable details, as well as lowering the height of the Street View camera to ensure it doesn't become a digital "peeping Tom", capturing photos of people in intimate or compromising settings in their own homes.
The new challenge from the EU relates to warning communities before the Google Street View-mobile rolls into town, and the length of time Google retains the unblurred, original images in its own database. The EU has asked that Google do more than simply post its image-capturing schedule online, and that it purge the original images after six months.
Google has enough on its plate, and it keeps adding new plates like the Nexus One, and Google Buzz. Google Maps with Street View is cool as a novelty, but it hardly seems worth the negative attention it continues to bring Google.
I have mapped my house just to see what images Google captured. It is interesting to try and determine--based on the foliage of the trees, the cars in the driveways, and other clues--when the Google Street Maps-mobile cruised the neighborhood and captured the images.
Aside from that, I don't see much value in the Street View mode of Google Maps. It might have some utility in being able to show you exactly what the building you are looking for looks like, possibly making it easier to find once you get to the right area. However, mapping my address actually places me on a road that runs behind my house so all you can see of my property is trees, and navigating around the neighborhood with Street Maps is quirky.
Mapping and driving directions are virtually indispensible tools today. Many people rely on mapping sites like Google Maps to get them from point A to point B. Even, the satellite view on Google Maps has proved useful--delivering up to date images of the destruction following the devastating earthquakes in Haiti.
The Street Maps feature seems more like a novelty than a functional tool, though. Rather than providing any real value to Google Maps, it is like an exercise by Google to demonstrate the reach of its extensive empire and its unsurpassed ability to index virtually anything and make it searchable online. Street View is like Google's answer to the question "why not?"
Well, mounting privacy concerns may just be the answer to that question. If Street View adds little to the value and functionality of Google Maps, yet invites litigation and privacy complaints from around the world, perhaps its not a feature Google should devote its vast resources to pursuing any longer.
Google has enough privacy challenges with the tools and features that actually provide value, perhaps it should simply add Street View to the obituaries.
Tony Bradley is co-author of Unified Communications for Dummies. He tweets as @Tony_BradleyPCW, and can be contacted at his Facebook page.