Annalee Newitz last week posted a column on people’s fear of privacy loss as a result of Google Maps. Her point:
So while all these people are wringing their hands over how simple it is for strangers to discover the color of their roof on Google, we forget that we can already be tracked everywhere we go using cell phones and the RFID chips in Wal-Mart backpacks.
I honestly didn’t know people were up in arms about the maps and satellite images (which have been available elsewhere for years), and, like Annalee, I’m much more concerned about the proliferation of real-time tracking systems like cameras, RFID tags in our driver’s licenses and consumer products, and other sensor technologies.
And that’s why, while I think Google Maps reinvention of online mapping services is the best thing since push-pops, I’m a little cautious about Google Lab’s Ridefinder, which shows real-time positions of taxi cabs and shuttle vans in a few metropolitan areas. Google’s satellite images show a snapshot in time, often from many months ago (longer maybe, in the case of the low-res rural areas), but these pins in a map that update with the push of a button are a real. There’s a vehicle on the ground in DC moving fairs around town, and I can see it on screen. All Google is showing us is the vehicle positioning data they get from the operators, but it also serves to remind us that the operators could probably offer their dispatching details too (2am pick up at Washington Regent Hotel, drop at Columbus and 4th). That’s scarier yet.
On the other hand, The Map Room and The Importance Of… point out another way to put pins in a map: ChicagoCrime.org uses publicly available police blotter data to show crime info on a Google Map of the city. The stats show “simple batter” was the most commonly reported crime type, and the map shows the past 50 incidents to be pretty evenly distributed through the city. Arson threats seem to be concentrated in the area between 290 and 94, and in to the south of the city, arson itself is somewhat more widely distributed.
Like the the day Google Maps added satellite images, I found myself lost in exploration in ChicagoCrime.org’s crime maps. But these maps also show what is becoming Google Maps’ real legacy: to make GIS tools available to a wider audience. As more people start building
hacks applications based these tools, we’ll find some that give reasonable people cause for privacy concern, and others that amaze us with utility (without making us give up our privacy).
Then I go back to Annalee’s point: at least we can see what information Google has on is in their maps and satellite images. At least we can watch the watchers. Other, more obscure data sources may be no better protected against misuse, even while they collect more detailed data about who we are and what we do.