21 September 2015

Street View Technology in the Philippines: How It was Done, Pros and Cons

Screen capture from: https://www.instantstreetview.com/.

Although Google Street View was first introduced as a feature of Google Maps and Google Earth as far back as 2007, it likely permeated Filipino consciousness only over the last two days ironically with not just a little help from one of Google’s deadliest competitors, the social networking site Facebook.

In fact, by mid-morning yesterday, the site was either unreachable or would not load properly. I am merely guessing, bit it seemed like Google servers were struggling to cope with the sudden surge in traffic from the Philippines. To be fair, service had normalised by mid-afternoon.

All the shares of street view locations that I was seeing on Facebook were from the site www.instantstreetview.com. There are, however several other street view domain names offering the same service and all making use of Google technology.

Street view of Philippine localities went live only as recently as last Wednesday, the sixteenth of September. Included are Metro Manila, Dasmariñas, General Santos, Bacoor, San Jose del Monte, Iloilo City, Calambâ, Baguio, Batangas City, Imus, San Pedro, Santa Rosa, Lipa, Biñan, San Pablo, Cabuyao, Malolos, Meycauayan, San Carlos, Dagupan, Tanauan, Trece Martires, Gapan, Cavite City, Alaminos and Tagaytay. (Wikipedia)

The list may not be entirely be accurate because I did a virtual tour of my mother’s hometown of Nasugbu yesterday; and the municipality is not in the list.

The images are apparently time-stamped; and I saw one yesterday taken as recently as April 2015.

The coverage is comprehensive; even nooks and crannies were included.

I spent a considerable amount of time yesterday exploring street views of my home city of Lipa; and to say that the street view coverage is comprehensive is an understatement. Even nooks and crannies of obscure little barangays around the city are included.

The obvious question to ask as far as you and I are concerned, needless to say, is how they did it. To get the answer to this question, I turned once again to Wikipedia.

The street level photographs were captured using 360º cameras developed in house by Google, stitched together to create a panoramic view of any location. The principle of stitching photographs is no different from doing the same using cloth with needle and thread. To ensure accuracy, the cameras used relied on GPS sensors.

The photographs were mostly captured on board automobiles; but there were also those, according to Wikipedia, that were captured on board trekkers, tricycles, boats, snowmobiles and camels. Some photographs were captured on foot while others needed underwater apparatus.

Street view technology’s most obvious application is, of course, navigation. As a tool for somebody travelling to a destination he or she has not been to previously, street view is priceless. It gives the traveller a clear idea of what to look for, especially if the address is already in the Google database.

The technology also offers entertainment value; and allows anyone with a device and an Internet connection to go on a virtual tour of any place on Earth covered by the street technology.

There are concerns, needless to say; and particularly so in the Philippines.

First of all, there is the privacy issue. You might all have noticed that faces are blurred. Google uses technology to automatically do this. Even then, if you find yourself in one of the pictures, even if your face has been blurred out, in a way your privacy has been violated.

Faces are automatically blurred in Google Street View.

Some European Union Countries have strict laws about photography; and in fact, there are some where street view technology may not even be legal. Ideally, consent has to be given by a person for him or her to be included in a photograph. That said, Philippine privacy law is not explicit enough on the subject.

But picture any one of these scenarios that Wikipedia says privacy advocates have cited against the street view technology: you were photographed leaving a strip club (Smiley!); sunbathing wearing a skimpy bikini; or picking up a prostitute (Horned Purple Emoticon!).

Now remember that these pictures were all taken without your permission and then shared publicly online. If you were unfortunate enough to have been caught leaving one of these sleazy joints in Lipa with an escort, even if your face is blurred, of course your wife will know it is you!

Conversely, your wife will of course be thankful for Google Street View. (Smiley)  And so will her lawyer.

My single greatest concern about Google Street View is that it has made things immeasurably easier for criminals with Internet access to scout out potential targets without even having to leave the comforts of their homes.

I sought out my brother’s home in Texas with relative ease and showed the image to him. He confirmed that it was, indeed, where he lives; and quipped that he should have been outside when the photograph was taken.

In other words, he does not share my concern. Of course, law enforcement and the state of peace and order in Texas and here in the Philippines are arguably not the same level at all. If I was thinking of burgling his home, I just got valuable information from street view technology and of his neighbours’ homes as well.

There, I will probably end up in a Texas correctional facility. Here, I will probably end up as an ‘under investigation’ item on TV Patrol and subsequently forgotten because every night something similar is reported.

To end, it is probably not wise to share a photo of your own home on Facebook. You just never know if a burglar is watching.


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