Google Street View, Circa 1935

Google’s new Street View feature has caused a predictable sort of hubbub. Privacy advocates are upset; one woman freaked out when she could see her cat through the window of her house; one man was caught peeing by the side of the road. (We interviewed Google’s project manager on our site; his answers, hardly earth-shaking, were still interesting.)

I understand all these concerns. But I’d like to suggest a slightly different way of thinking about Street View.

Several years ago, I was doing research for my first book, Turbulent Souls (republished recently as Choosing My Religion). I knew very little about my parents’ and grandparents’ lives in the old days, so I did as much document research as I could, a little bit in Poland and Israel but mostly in New York City.

I learned that the city’s Dept. of Records and Information Services maintained an archive of photos taken of every building in the city, for taxation purposes. I knew the street addresses in Brooklyn where my mother and father had both lived as kids, so I was able to track down the pictures. Here is the photo of the building in Brownsville where, some years earlier, my father’s family lived and ran a kosher restaurant. (If you can make out the sign on the window, you’ll see that the storefront now belongs to Weiss Monumental Works, which sold cemetery headstones.)

As thrilled as I was to find that photo, it couldn’t compare to the next one I found — of the house where my mother lived as a teenager, at 175 Crown Heights:

Can you see the open door of the house? And then look, just to the left of the door — that woman? That’s my grandmother, Esther Bernstein Greenglass. I can’t quite make out what she’s doing — watering some plants? Chatting with the neighbor? Shaking out a dish towel? But it didn’t matter. How lucky I was, to have found this relic of my family’s life, no matter how small. My grandmother died when I was about six, and I barely knew her; all my other grandparents died earlier. I have always been the kind of writer who likes to have pictures around when I write, so to me this random tax photo from the 1930’s (I think) was a pretty great find.

I realize there is a big difference between a photograph like this one, which must be hunted down in a dusty municipal archive, and Google Street View, which creates pictures that are available to anyone, anytime, anywhere in the world with the click of a mouse. (Alas, 175 Crown Street lies just out of Google Street View’s view, so far at least.) But I think it’s worth considering that what may strike you today as a harsh invasion of your privacy, unforgivable and unwanted, may turn out to be a boon one day to your grandchildren.


south(west)paw

Great post.

egretman

I would be much more concerned about the "facts" that Choicepoint is finding out about you from interviews with the neighbors.

Besides, I predict that the location of the Google Street View mobile cam will soon be published for all to know and that as a result people will be seen holding advertising, mooning the camera, peeing facing the camera, having sex, and much worse before long.

A sort of national sport. I for one will applaud that.

craiginmn

"I can't quite make out what she's doing — watering some plants? "

It looks like there is a little boy next to her and that she is doing something with them. There is something between them as well....a toy or maybe a cat. Perhaps trying to pick up the boy or the cat?

petekazanjy

A similar hubbub ensued when Facebook repackaged the information about already-accessible actions that were being taken on their site into a feed that your friends would see.

Initially, (some) people knee-jerked with horror. However, over time, people have realized the value in it, and have started doing exactly what egretman above indicates: taking advantage of the new distribution medium to push certain messages out to the world ("I'm no longer single!" or "I'm going to this party!").

procrastinating_econ

"Several years ago, I was doing research for my first book, Turbulent Souls (republished recently as Choosing My Religion)."

Question for Dubner: I haven't read your book, but I think you are a christian. Just out of curiosity, would you mind writing about what you think of Steven Pinker and Richard Dawkins. Thanks.

Garry

It looks to me like she is looking at a little boy. He seems to have his back arched, like he is holding something heavy. And she has her arms outstretched, as if she is going to take from him whatever he has in his arms.
Then again, it could all be my imagination!

Kent

Why can't Google just leave these cats alone. Everyone knows cats don't like to be photographed.

Icarus

A short life on the planet. I would believe people would like to be immortal in records long after they are dust. Let the world and society around me be recorded so a million years from now people will know how it was.

I mean it'll be better if organisms in the future found a good record of life as it is now than to stumble upon a pin or signboard and wonder if we worshipped it.

Of course only the world in public domain should be photographed.There are a lot of embarrassing things that people might be doing when photographed, but serves them right. It is in public domain, isn't it?

mapper99

Cats, Dogs, Buffalos, Criminals - Street View captures it all. Take a look at this huge list of Google Street View sightings here: http://streetviewgallery.corank.com

htb

I just don't get this controversy.

If you ever lived in a small town -- and when I was a kid, I lived in a town with a population just above seven hundred people -- then you know that "privacy" is not "the neighbors don't know anything except what I choose to tell them," but merely "the neighbors have the tact not to ask about your head cold, because you were in your home, with the windows and doors closed and the drapes pulled shut, when you sneezed."

These urban folks seem to think that they deserve perfect anonymity (not merely privacy). It would be much more realistic for people to assume that the bored old lady next door is carefully watching every single thing that you do -- just as bored old ladies have been doing for centuries, in villages and small towns all over the world.

Stephen

I'm not seeing a link for the old tax photo; was it removed?

Lisa M Lane

It would also be interesting if people put things on the web with a view to what their grandchildren would see. I can't imagine my grandchildren wanting to know about all the junk I've got out there. Part of the appeal may be the mystery.

south(west)paw

Great post.

egretman

I would be much more concerned about the "facts" that Choicepoint is finding out about you from interviews with the neighbors.

Besides, I predict that the location of the Google Street View mobile cam will soon be published for all to know and that as a result people will be seen holding advertising, mooning the camera, peeing facing the camera, having sex, and much worse before long.

A sort of national sport. I for one will applaud that.

craiginmn

"I can't quite make out what she's doing - watering some plants? "

It looks like there is a little boy next to her and that she is doing something with them. There is something between them as well....a toy or maybe a cat. Perhaps trying to pick up the boy or the cat?

petekazanjy

A similar hubbub ensued when Facebook repackaged the information about already-accessible actions that were being taken on their site into a feed that your friends would see.

Initially, (some) people knee-jerked with horror. However, over time, people have realized the value in it, and have started doing exactly what egretman above indicates: taking advantage of the new distribution medium to push certain messages out to the world ("I'm no longer single!" or "I'm going to this party!").

procrastinating_econ

"Several years ago, I was doing research for my first book, Turbulent Souls (republished recently as Choosing My Religion)."

Question for Dubner: I haven't read your book, but I think you are a christian. Just out of curiosity, would you mind writing about what you think of Steven Pinker and Richard Dawkins. Thanks.

Garry

It looks to me like she is looking at a little boy. He seems to have his back arched, like he is holding something heavy. And she has her arms outstretched, as if she is going to take from him whatever he has in his arms.
Then again, it could all be my imagination!

Kent

Why can't Google just leave these cats alone. Everyone knows cats don't like to be photographed.

Icarus

A short life on the planet. I would believe people would like to be immortal in records long after they are dust. Let the world and society around me be recorded so a million years from now people will know how it was.

I mean it'll be better if organisms in the future found a good record of life as it is now than to stumble upon a pin or signboard and wonder if we worshipped it.

Of course only the world in public domain should be photographed.There are a lot of embarrassing things that people might be doing when photographed, but serves them right. It is in public domain, isn't it?