IT consultant Jens Best is preparing to upend the debate over Google's Street View mapping program, which has run into fierce criticism from data protection officials. Google launched an online tool this week that lets people living in some 20 cities where Street View is due to launch later this year to request that images of their properties be blurred prior to the service going live.
The program, which is only being offered in Germany, came after Google sought to appease government officials after complaints from the German public. But Best, a 37-year-old IT consultant who lives in Berlin, has recruited a 400-strong crew of volunteers who plan to take photographs of the areas that Google will excise from Street View. They plan to post those photos within Street View, which accepts user generated photos. "I'm accepting that some people are going to hate me," Best said during an interview on Friday. "I can live with that."
Best and his volunteers won't know which areas are blurred until Google launched Street View in Germany, which will start with 20 cities: Berlin, Bielefeld, Bochum, Bonn, Bremen, Dortmund, Dresden, Duisburg, Dusseldorf, Essen, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Hanover, Cologne, Leipzig, Mannheim, Munich, Nuremberg, Stuttgart and Wuppertal.
But once those images go live, volunteers plan to hit the streets, which could potentially cause turmoil among homeowners who don't want to see their properties on Street View.
Best said he hasn't heard from German authorities about their opinion of the plan. He admits it is provocative, but says that people do not understand that the Internet isn't some abstract digital layer but it reflects reality. And that reality is that anyone can walk down a street, take a photo of a house and publish it on the Internet. Data that is already public should be available, and that would include images of items or places that can be legally photographed anyway.
"I'm not taking photos of the living room," Best said. "I'm not taking photos of your face. I am taking photos in the public sphere." Google officials contacted in London said they had no comment.
Several German cities, including Bielefeld, Weilheim and Herne, are planning to ask Google not to publish photos of buildings such as fire stations, schools and court houses, which Best described as even "more weird" than removing photos of private homes.
Perhaps paradoxically, Best is keen in how he manages his personal data and what is published on the Internet. Since a story was written about him in the German publication Spiegel, journalists have tried to track him down but said they've had a bit of trouble, for example, finding where he lives, Best said.
So far, most of the feedback he has received on his idea has been positive, Best said. Contrary to inflammatory stories in the German media over Street View, a majority of Germans use and approve of the service, he said. "Few of the people are really ranting against me," he said.
German has very strict privacy regulations, stemming from Nazi-era policies. But Best said "I think there's a significant difference between an organisation collecting data in a clandestine way and not giving this info to the public and a body like Google collecting data and giving it to all the people." He hasn't heard from anyone in the German government yet, although he has tried to contact officials within Germany's internal affairs ministry. "I think they are not taking me seriously," he said.
Best said he's suggested that volunteer photographers use a Creative Commons licence for their photos so they can be used by other geo-services whether commercial or open source. Best has set up a website for people interested in the project at streetview.mxt.de.