Search engine pinpoints homes: Technology raises concerns among women’s shelter advocates
April 7, 2005
Online search engine leader Google Inc. has unveiled a new feature that will enable its users to zoom in on homes and businesses using satellite images, an advance that may raise privacy concerns as well as intensify the competitive pressures on its rivals.
The South Lake Tahoe Women’s Center, which helps survivors of domestic violence start new lives, said the technology is just another option available through the Internet that could threaten someone’s privacy.
“Definitely there are very aggressive technologically savvy perpetrators who do everything they can to locate the victim who has fled,” said Anna Richter, a grant writer at the women’s center. “Certainly this a tool they can use to make it harder for a survivor to maintain their anonymity and safety.”
The satellite technology, which Google began offering this week at http://maps.google.com, is part of the package that the Mountain View-based company acquired when it bought digital map maker Keyhole Corp. for an undisclosed amount nearly six months ago.
This marks the first time since the deal closed that Google has offered free access to Keyhole’s high-tech maps through its search engine. Users previously had to pay $29.95 to download a version of Keyhole’s basic software package.
The satellite maps could unnerve some people, even as the technology impresses others. That’s because the Keyhole technology is designed to provide close-up perspective of specific addresses.
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“It could be used to find a place, but you also could use that to spy on people,” said Scott Lukas, chairman of Anthropology and Sociology at Lake Tahoe Community College. “It’s come to this point where they’re using mapping technology, global positioning systems in cars … all aspects of society are moving toward surveillance. If you’re using a Safeway discount card they are also tracing your purchase. Data exchange in society is another form of surveillance.”
There is little reason for people to be paranoid about the satellite maps because the images generally are six to 12 months old, said John Hanke, Keyhole’s general manager. “And it’s not like you are going to be able to read a license plate on a car or see what an individual was doing when a particular image was taken,” he said.
Google believes most people will like the convenience of generating a satellite image with a few clicks of a computer mouse. The company envisions people using the service as a way to scout a hotel’s proximity to the beach for a possible vacation or size up the neighborhood where an apartment is for rent.
Google’s free satellite maps initially will be limited to North America, with images covering roughly half the United States, Hanke said. The maps up the ante for the many challengers chipping away at Google’s share of the lucrative Internet search engine market by adding more bells and whistles.
For instance, Amazon.com Inc.’s A9 search engine earlier this year introduced a feature that includes an index containing 20 million street-level photographs of building exteriors in 10 major U.S. cities, including the San Francisco Bay Area.
Some of the buildings identified on the site were confidential women’s shelters and women’s advocacy administration offices. A9 has since removed those locations from its site and promised to remove any business that does not want to be on it.
– Tribune staff writer Gregory Crofton contributed to this report.