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Posted: November 1, 2012 8:52 p.m.

Morgan: Watch out for prying eyes

It happened quite suddenly. One morning recently, we heard the rip and roar of a chainsaw and the guttural grinding of a wood chipper. The noises went on for the better part of the day, and even when the dissonance ended, we weren't happy. One by one, the neighbor's trees that lined our back fence had come down. Gone was our semblance of privacy. We had an unimpeded view of the back windows that faced ours, their storage shed and a metal garage, and even beyond into the next yard. Their trees had shaded our back porch and kept it comfortable enough to enjoy in the height of summer heat and humidity. But now, prying eyes, if there were any, could enjoy our back porch, while we could tally our neighbor's comings and goings. Aaaaaargh! Snoopy would say. C'est la vie, the seer would say.

But our situation isn't near as disturbing as a Facebook post by my niece just last week. She's a stay-at-home mom with two children, and she lives in a small town in east Georgia. In her words: "Poking around the other day (on Google Maps), I saw the images of our property had been updated and clearly showed our house, my truck and legible political sticker, our open front window, and a big fat stroller in the yard. It bothered me tremendously that any pedophile or burglar could ‘virtually' walk down my street and case my house.

"I have no clue what privacy laws, if any, govern this sort of activity. But it is terribly unsettling to know that there was someone riding down my street taking thousands of pictures of my house and my neighborhood, and then posting them for the world to see. You can see right into our backyard, that we have a garden and a chicken coop...It makes it too simple for someone with malicious intent to target individuals or even groups..."

She quickly contacted Google Maps and found directions there for how to have the images blurred, and she did so. She continued: "It's one thing to map an address to be able to drive there; it's a whole different world when we can see clear pictures of that address...Certainly people should realize what a dangerous tool this could become, rather than being awed by the nifty new technology."

Google, the giant search engine, debuted Google Maps in 2005 to provide driving directions, satellite views of the earth, local traffic conditions and public transportation options. It launched Street View in 2007 offering 360-degree street level images. At that time, the only images available were of five cities in the U.S. Now you can find thousands of images in 3,000 towns and cities in 43 countries around the world. "Google teams and volunteers have covered more than five million miles with the Street View vehicles," said the president of a company that monitors mapping efforts, as quoted in an Associated Press story in the AJC this week.

With the launch of Google Maps, complaints quickly arose, but the company defended itself by saying that all the images were of public places. Nevertheless, it agreed to blur people's faces and vehicle tag numbers. Once Street View came on line in 2007, still more complaints were lodged as people could be seen in situations that could be questioned or that were embarrassing, such as someone shown entering an adult bookstore or dressed skimpily in their own backyards. It then had to offer the option that allows people to request further blurring of their homes and businesses, including the option to remove completely a certain address from the maps or any inappropriate content. Google says that the images it uploads are not in real time and could be months or years old.

On the plus side, Google Maps Street View can walk you down cobblestone streets in Spain or through the Smithsonian Museum or transport you magically to the ski slopes in British Columbia. Just this week, brand new hiking views of popular trails on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon have become available via cameras attached to backpacks. Google has aggressive plans to turn more volunteers with backpacks loose in national forests, Venice, on Mount Everest and at ancient ruins and castles around the world, said the AP story. Armchair travelers should be well satisfied. The question remains, however, why a small home with children in rural east Georgia should even show up on the computer screens of billions of people in the world.

Barbara Morgan is a Covington resident with a background in newspaper journalism, state government and politics.

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