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The Wiki Man

The Wiki Man

A fortnightly column on technology and the web

7 April 2009

12:00 AM

7 April 2009

12:00 AM

I had been expecting it for weeks: the announcement of the first Google Street View divorce. A lawyer speaking anonymously to the Sun now claims to have been briefed to start proceedings after his client was browsing the Google site and spotted her husband’s car parked outside another woman’s house. Although the Street View software automatically blurs car number-plates (as well as most human faces), the lawyer believes the photograph offers sufficient proof of identity since the man had customised his Range Rover with distinctive wheel trim (grounds enough in itself, you’d think).

If you have never used Google Street View, you can take a look at the Spectator’s front door here — http://snipr.com/f3zqh — in a picture which suggests that staff at the Speccie could step up their recycling efforts, but otherwise reveals a surprising absence of debauchery. This and a few million other house-fronts have been photographed by special Google vehicles which ply the streets of major British cities panoramically scanning the buildings — the 21st-century equivalent of those cameras once (still?) used for school photographs where one pupil would scurry round the back of the line-up in mid-exposure so as to appear at both ends of the photograph, thereby achieving a quick burst of kudos and a lifelong reputation as a wag.


To make one thing clear: these are not live photographs, so you can’t sit at a computer and wait for someone to leave their house. It is a huge patchwork of photographs, mostly taken last summer, forming a tapestry of British street scenes, a kind of Domesday Book for 2008.

Obviously a few awkward scenes have emerged — one man photographed leaving a sex shop is clearly shown to be wearing a rucksack, something that could expose him to a lifetime’s ridicule in better circles. And Oasis’s Liam Gallagher hurriedly denied claims he was the figure seen gesturing at the camera outside the Queen’s pub in Primrose Hill (http://snipr.com/f3yrl) as he ‘never wears Reeboks with legwarmers’.

Yet, given the area covered, it is amazing how few scandals have emerged; nothing to the furore caused in France when authorities abandoned the practice of sending speed camera photographs to the owners of offending cars since they too often revealed mystery companions. All the same, many people claim they feel invaded. To me it’s much less questionable than online aerial photographs, which have existed for some time; after all, I have an expectation of privacy when in my back garden or on my roof which I don’t really have at the roadside. A few critics inevitably cite the risk of paedophilia, as though the location of schools was a secret until now. Others rather fancifully mention stalkers. If nothing else, the service will help stalkers maintain a lower carbon footprint, since they will no longer need to trawl the streets in their obligatory white vans.

You might argue that Google should announce when they are planning to film in a particular area so the more bourgeois of us can tuck our wheelie-bins out of sight. But that might be too much of a temptation to pranksters. Spare a thought for the Berkshire family who were surprised to learn that there was a 60-foot phallus painted on the roof of their £1 million country house (http://tinyurl.com/cku92o) — their 18-year-old son’s bid for fame on Google Earth.


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