Earlier this week, I noted that Google had managed to assuage US regulators with assurances of improved privacy practices all around, particularly in regards to their Street View WiFi data collection debacle. Now the company is making headlines again with the latest round of criticism out of the UK over broader Street View issues. It's either time for Street View to go or for Google to make some radical changes to its enhanced mapping.
London's Telegraph reported today on Parliament's scathing criticism of Google's Street View gaffes:
Mark Lancaster, a Conservative MP...accused the search engine of a "staggering" invasion of privacy of [a women and children's shelter], which houses women and children who have fled abusive homes and therefore depend on the building's "anonymity".
Members of the British Parliament went on to criticize their own Information Commissioner's Office who cleared Google of any wrongdoing in their WiFi data collection, calling the Office "lily-livered." They further called out Google for contributing to a growing surveillance state and questioned the motives for the Street View initiative.
In fact, Google's motivations are pretty clear, conspiracy theories aside. Google Maps needs to be the destination for all of your mapping needs. If Maps provides more information, faster, better, and in a more visually useful manner than any other competitors, it's more likely to get your eyes. Those eyes turn into ad revenue. This is Business 101 stuff.
The problem is that the technology is so powerful, pervasive, ubiquitous, and indiscriminate that Google itself has called any sort of opt-in technology around Street View "unworkable." And yet Google's new privacy czar explained the importance of Google's brand earlier this week, speaking to the Guardian:
"The main focus is to rebuild trust. There have been more unpleasant surprises than we would have liked in the past period and it's definitely a very big focus of mine to make sure that doesn't happen again...We're very aware that our business is based on the trust of users and if damaged [then] that's the worst thing we could do," said [Alma] Whitten.
While it's true that Google Street View only photographs public places, making those places, which obviously include private homes, hospitals, shelters, government agencies, etc., so easily searchable is not something for which most of the world is ready. If Google wants to rebuild trust, then Street View needs to go (at least for now and at least in its current format). It would be relatively easy for Google to partner with municipalities to leverage traffic cameras and other public surveillance devices to provide some degree of Street View functionality that would not leave such a bad taste in people's mouths. In fact, Google could easily spin this as an opportunity for users to better understand the video being shot of them by governments every day, as well as to provide better access to traffic information in real time (which is arguably more useful than Street View's static images).
Obviously, an approach like this would not be as comprehensive as the current vision of Street View, but as Whitten points out, if users turn away from Google because of anger and privacy concerns, then they're not going to be selling any ads anyway.