Google Street View peeks inside stores

Internet giant bringing Street View indoors, allowing users to view 360-degree images of shop interiors, but concerns over privacy remain.
Written by Jamie Yap, Contributor

Google is taking its Street View map service indoors, enabling users to see 360-degree images of the interior of various businesses including retail stores and restaurants.

The Internet giant rolled out pilot projects of the service in London and Paris last week, as well as in other cities across Japan, Australia, New Zealand and the United States, BBC reported. The launch followed Google's announcement in May of its 360-degree Business Photos program, where business owners could request Google's photographers to take professional interior shots of their store. These images would be used on the store's Places page and viewed as 360-degree imagery with Street View technology.

Google said the new scheme would be supported on a "completely voluntary basis", BBC reported. Quoting a Google spokesperson, it added: "Building on the Google Art Project, which took Street View technology inside 17 acclaimed museums, this project is another creative implementation of Street View technology, to help businesses as they build their online presence. We hope to enable businesses to highlight the qualities that make their locations stand out through professional, high-quality imagery."

According to the report, Google invited companies from the most searched business categories to request that its photographers paid a visit to their premises, which included restaurants, hotels, shops, gyms and vehicle repair workshops. The search giant ruled out big-brand chains for the time being and also excluded hospitals and lawyers' offices, BBC added.

Google said business owners must warn their employees and customers about the photoshoot before it starts and also promised to blur or not publish any images that include bystanders, the report stated.

The Street View service, which originated for outdoor maps, had landed the company in legal battles concerning user privacy, especially since the company admitted in May 2010 that its Street View cars collected personal data from unsecured Wi-Fi networks. The revelation triggered several privacy investigations and legal battles worldwide.

Businesses, Google must be responsible
In Singapore, where the existing Street View service is available, users' reactions to an indoors Street View were considerably muted, though there were still concerns over individual's privacy.

Josephine Goh, a freelance writer, told ZDNet Asia that should the service make its way to the island-state, it was crucial both Google and the store owner remained "responsible" and informed customers when photographs were being taken and, most importantly, when they were  used on Google's pages.

"It's the same concern when you don't want people to know you visited or patronized a particular store for fear of embarrassment," Goh said in an e-mail.

Frederick Tay, a sales associate, considered Street View going indoors to be "a non-event".

"It does make sense for businesses that want to increase their online presence and promote their store with an interior Street View. But what's the difference if I go to the business's Web or Facebook page to view interior shots [which the the business itself took]?" he said in an SMS interview.

Tay noted that the biggest benefit the new service would provide was the convenience of viewing the location, directions and a store's interiors within the same map, though, he added that this would be "handy only if I'm surfing the Web on my mobile".

Bryan Tan, director at Keystone Law, told ZDNet Asia that the new Street View of interiors could potentially spell a new round of legal troubles for Google because "whenever you take pictures [with people in them], there's [the issue] of privacy consent". The other issue could be that a photo might "inevitably capture something it shouldn't have", he explained in a phone interview.

By stating that the service was voluntary and promising to blur out images of people, Google might be "covered", Tan said, but businesses now would have to make the decision whether they were willing to take the risk.

"[When running a business,] you're accountable also to your employees and customers", he emphasized.

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