By Robbie Ward
TUPELO – Driving along North Thomas Street on her lunch break this week, Cindy Bivens saw the Google Street View car moving through the city, taking digital photos with a four-foot-high, multi-camera contraption hoisted up from the roof.
In a bit of irony, Bivens pulled out her smartphone and snapped a photo of the car as it turned into the Winfield subdivision.
Google is updating images for its free online mapping services, and Lee County is the only place it is working in the state. Google Street View also has cars currently driving through 10 other states, including Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee, Louisiana and Texas.
An addition to Google maps since 2007, Street View allows people to type in an address on the company’s website to view 360-degree images of addresses throughout the world.
Currently, the service is available in 52 counties and has many different uses. For example, Bivens, the office manager at Gentiva Hospice, said some employees look at Google Street View to make house visits.
“Nurses and aides use it going to see patients living in different places we’re not familiar with,” she said.
But privacy advocates see a darker side to Google’s attempts to take photographs along streets, roads and elsewhere. Some counties in Europe have investigated practices of the company’s attempts to collect information using Street View cars, some even banning the service out of concern for privacy violations.
In the United States earlier this year, 38 states including Mississippi negotiated a $7 million settlement with Google related to Street View vehicles taking more than photographs. The cars collected data from unsecured wireless networks nationwide from 2008-2010.
Mississippi received $114,995 as part of the settlement.
“The privacy rights of our citizens is of utmost importance,” Attorney General Jim Hood said in a March 12 news release. “This settlement is the result of nearly two years of negotiation and recognizes the rights of individuals whose information was collected without their permission.”
Antennas and open-source software on the cars collected network identification for use of future geolocation services. The company acknowledged the information collected may have included website addresses viewed by individuals and email communications.
Google has since disabled or removed software from the vehicles to collect the wireless data. But that hasn’t stopped watchdog groups like the Washington, D.C.-based Electronic Privacy Information Center from calling for more laws and regulations to rein in Google’s ability to collect information.
Marc Rotenberg, executive director of EPIC, teaches information privacy law at Georgetown University Law Center and has testified before Congress on related issues. He said individuals are powerless to prevent Google wandering through the country taking photos.
“A lot of these decisions require a political response,” he said Friday.
As for the photographs, Google Street View has tools allowing people to blur their property, but most images on the website remain in plain view.
Plantersville resident Dana Peters, a compliance officer at BancorpSouth, saw the Google car parked at the Wendy’s on West Main Street this week. She has searched for her house on Street View and found a photo showing her vehicle in the driveway.
“I can see that the blinds were up in a window,” she said, looking at her house on the website. “I can tell what my neighbors had going on.”