Espiners Berlin : Blurring the buildings blurs the issue

For the past couple of days I have been walking the streets of virtual Berlin on Google’s Street View, cursing the numerous Berliners who have “protected” their homes. Why do the Germans need to make that private?

Mark Espiner
Espiner
Mark Espiner.Foto: Thilo Rückeis

Yesterday, I woke up to a foggy Berlin. The Fernsehturm had disappeared. Everything was shrouded in mist. For a moment it crossed my mind that perhaps Google had got control of the weather and was punishing the Germans for their ill-advised privacy hysteria about Street View. Could it be possible that the multinational had replaced the digital mist that it had used to keep a few paranoid people’s houses private on our computer screens with the real stuff?

For the past couple of days I have been walking the streets of virtual Berlin on Google’s new application, cursing the numerous Berliners who have “protected” their homes by forcing the company to blur them out. Germany’s blur mania prompted media commentator Jeff Jarvis to wittily rechristen you Germans the Blurmans. Joking aside, it is a little weird, isn’t it? After all, what could be more public than the street? What could be more open to view than the outside-facing front of your house? Why do you need to make that private?

It is interesting to see how different we are on this. I was working at the Guardian when London’s Street View went live a couple of years ago. Everyone logged on to look at their street and house. There were a few gasps of embarrassment. One colleague’s windows were really dirty, another had a bit too much rubbish and junk in his front garden, and there was mild concern, so mild that it evaporated really quickly, about privacy. Most people immediately saw the benefits. This was an A-Z map of the city from street level. It was a navigational tool.

Now I think of it, I don’t remember anyone even considering blurring their house. And I can’t remember it being an option on offer. I’m not sure that it was. London used to have a reputation as a foggy town, but compared to Berlin it’s a clear, clear Street View.

I found Google’s innovation instantly useful. If I was going to meet someone at a pub or club I didn’t know, I’d check it out on Street View, so I’d know what to look for. And if I was curious to visit a part of town I didn’t know, I could go there without having to squeeze on the tube.

I was so adjusted to its benefits that when I decided to move to Berlin, I was really frustrated not to be able to use it from my flat in London to get a feel for some of the city’s areas. And since I moved here and have occasionally thought of moving flats, I’ve likewise been infuriated by not being able to check out the potential new street before trudging all the way over there to find it’s not a leafy lovely kiez but a horrible dump.

Sure, you have very good reasons to be camera shy - and distrustful of intrusion. Although when I took a quick virtual tour around the former Stasi stronghold of Lichtenberg I was surprised to find fewer misty buildings there than I thought I might.

Of course I sympathise. I’ve written more than once about not liking surveillance and CCTV. But your blurring the buildings blurs the issue. Surely the more important thing to worry about is people caught off-guard on camera. Have you seen the chap in France, who I’d say is pretty identifiable despite his foggy face, leaving a sex shop? Or the naked man in the boot of his car? Embarrasing moments, stuck forever in the digital world. Bloggers are beginning to collect Street View's funny, disturbing and arty moments.

I myself was a victim of this too - snapped when I was on a research trip to Italy. Here’s a screenshot of me in Siena (I’m the one in the red T-shirt and cowboy hat). It was odd being followed around by the guy on a Google bike-powered camera rickshaw (no cars could get down those streets). I felt watched. It wasn’t nice.

Surely what we need to know is when the Street View cameras are going to be out snapping, so we can avoid them - or make the most of the opportunity, like this guy. In Italy they’re giving the people a three-day advance warning. If you had that you could organise your own Street View protest (you’re good at those), photographed by Google - and seen by millions, or even use it as an art project (you’re good at those too).

Even that, though, is looking the wrong way. If you didn’t already know, the Google camera cars sucked a whole load of personal data as they were driving down your street. In some cases, your emails, passwords and more. They’ve got them still. And then you use Google every day and it knows what you’ve searched for and a whole lot more - but you don’t seem to be getting your knickers in a twist about that. So instead of making sure that your house, which everyone can see if they want to, is nicely misted on the internet, I’d press Google to delete your personal data if I were you. The Brits have just instructed Google to do just that; it seems strange to me that a Londoner should be encouraging you to do the same.

You can mail Mark on mark@espiner.com or follow him on Twitter @DeutschMarkUK

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