Google says South African Street View should be ready for World Cup, but some officials fear it could be a ‘gift to thieves’
In the apartheid era it would have looked distinctly sinister: strange vehicles on patrol in South Africa‘s townships with protruding cameras capturing billions of images.
In fact, the Toyota Prius cars and the quirky tricycles belong to Google, which is bringing its popular but controversial Street View service to Africa for the first time.
Google says its panoramic street-level photography will be an invaluable tool for locating businesses and historic landmarks, and should be ready for the hundreds of thousands of visitors expected to pour into South Africa for next year’s football World Cup.
But some officials and residents are less enthusiastic, warning that in a country notorious for its high level of crime, the detailed data could be a “gift to thieves”.
Tasso Evangelinos, chief operations officer for the Central City Improvement District in Cape Town, said: “It’s a phenomenal idea but, much as I love what they’re doing, the concern I have is that that there are a lot of criminal syndicates out there.
“They just have to tap into Google and they can see what building, what street, what neighbourhood to go for. If you’re a robber casing an area around a bank, you can see if you drive down a road what to expect ‑ are there security cameras, are there armed guards and so on.”
Community groups have expressed fears that criminals will be able to analyse suburbs and pinpoint vulnerable house, getaway routes and hiding places.
Haden Searles, chairman of the Durban North and Umhlanga community policing forum, told South Africa’s Sunday Tribune: “This will only make the work of criminals easier. If they are going to target my house, I would want them to work much harder, not click on an image and know the security details.”
California-based Google, which has faced complaints about Street View from privacy campaigners in Britain and around the world, denied that it was handing burglars a powerful new weapon.
Stephen Newton, the company’s South Africa country manager, said: “People get very excited but it’s just looking at things that anyone driving or walking down a street can look at. If there’s a private road that normal citizens don’t have access to, we won’t have access to it either.
“We look at it as a service with many uses, such as locating a business, and an educational platform. Can any service be abused for the wrong purpose? Of course that’s a possibility.”
Last week Google brought its cars and trikes to Soweto, Johannesburg, for a photo-opportunity after a public poll to determine the first tourist attractions to be recorded. The winners were Cape coastal routes including Chapman’s Peak, Kruger national park ‑ where wild animals might be snapped in passing ‑ and the Blyde river canyon.
Street View vehicles are fitted with cameras that collect still images as they drive down streets. The billions of photos are stitched together and published months later as part of Google’s mapping service. Faces and licence plates are blurred, and the public can request certain images be removed.
The Google trikes have a mounted camera and “specially decorated box containing image-collecting gadgetry”, and are piloted by “specially trained, super-fit Google employees and contractors”, the company said. Newton said security would be provided for the cars and trikes in all areas, but declined to give details. Google might deploy a 4×4 vehicle on some terrain, he added.
Source: Smith, D. (2009), “Google Street View raises crime fears in South Africa” The Guardian [online]. Available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/nov/29/google-street-view-south-africa [Accessed on 29 November 2009]