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Google Maps Project Manager Speaks Out on “Street View”

Last week was a busy one for the visual wizards at Google. First, the company launched Street View, which offers street-level photos of San Francisco, New York, Miami, Denver, and Las Vegas; the remarkable new service promptly drew controversy as bloggers and surprised photo subjects raised privacy concerns. Then came word that the alleged JFK bombing suspects had used images from Google Earth to make their plans.

Stephen Chau, the product manager for Google Maps, was kind enough to answer our questions about the history and development of Street View, the company’s efforts to safeguard privacy, and the project’s future.

Q: How was the idea for Street View born? What were the initial goals behind it?

A: Street View actually started as an idea of [Google co-founder and CEO] Larry [Page]’s. He wanted to see what would happen if you drove down the street taking photos. Street View has been in the works here at Google for several years now, and the images you see in the product are anywhere from a couple of weeks to a year old.

Our goal is always to provide the best user experience possible. Street View provides users with a rich, immersive browsing experience directly in Google Maps, enabling greater understanding of a specific location or area.

Q: How was the project accomplished technically?

A: The imagery in the Street View feature is provided by Google and a third party data provider. The imagery is gathered by vehicles driving public streets while equipped with imaging technology. There are various degrees of resolution in the imagery due to differences in imagery technology.

Q: Did you address specific privacy concerns from the outset?

A: At Google we take privacy very seriously. Street View only features imagery taken on public property and is not in real time. This imagery is no different from what any person can readily capture or see walking down the street. Imagery of this kind is available in a wide variety of formats for cities all around the world. While the Street View feature enables people to easily find, discover, and plan activities relevant to a location, we respect the fact that people may not want imagery they feel is objectionable featured on the service. We provide easily accessible tools for flagging inappropriate or sensitive imagery for review and removal.

Each Street View imagery bubble contains a link to “Street View Help” where users can report objectionable images. Objectionable imagery includes nudity, certain types of locations (for example, domestic violence shelters) and clearly identifiable individuals, if those individuals request takedown. We routinely review takedown requests and act quickly to remove objectionable imagery.

Q: The New York Times reported that you worked with a domestic violence prevention group to remove shelters for victims. Were there any other organizations that you worked with directly?

A: Prior to launching Street View, we reached out to several privacy and public service organizations to discuss the new feature and solicit feedback. These conversations have been valuable and productive.

Q: Did the quick and vehement response to Street View come as a surprise to the company?

A: As I mentioned above, our goal is always to provide the best user experience possible. Our users have expressed a desire to have this kind of functionality, and we are happy to be able to provide it.

Q: Have you had a large number of requests to remove privately owned buildings and residences?

A: We have received very few requests for removal, but those that we have received we are reviewing promptly.

Q: What cities are you planning to cover next?

A: We’re focused on making this service available in as many cities as possible. At first we will focus on major metropolitan areas but [we] plan on making Street View more comprehensive as time goes on. We’ll be adding Street View imagery for new cities on an ongoing basis. We will announce new imagery rollouts on the Google Lat Long blog.