Google's gift to thieves

Close your curtains - Google's new Street View facility is coming to your suburb soon and security experts and civic leaders warn it is a potential tool for criminals and a gross invasion of privacy.

Within months, images taken from the recently launched Google Maps' Street View drive across the country will be available online, where everyone - including criminals - can view them.

While faces and number plates will be blurred, community organisations are worried that criminals will be able to scout suburbs and identify vulnerable properties, escape routes or hiding places.

"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," said Haden Searles, chairman of the Durban North and Umhlanga Community Policing Forum.

He said this intelligence gathering tool would give criminal syndicates an advantage when targeting which homes to burgle.

Bayview Ratepayers' Association and community policing forum spokesman, Devan Pillay, said he was concerned about what information would be available.

"I would feel vulnerable knowing that a picture of my house and my address is posted on the internet. This would make it so easy for criminals to track down my house. My family and I would be exposed, I am not comfortable with that."

Concern over the Google project has been quite widespread.

Tasso Evangelinos, chief operations officer for the Central City Improvement District in Cape Town, said the Street View facility was extremely controversial.

He said crooks could easily download information without having to worry about being spotted in a particular area.

He said there were definite security risks, especially when it came to institutions such as banks and jewellery stores. "Imagine if they filmed the Reserve Bank in Cape Town. That's where all our bullion is. It's a lot of information you are giving away at a glance."

Business Against Crime Western Cape managing director Annelie Rabie said the organisation was extremely concerned about the security implications.

She said suspicious people who loitered at shopping malls were often picked up on surveillance cameras, but this facility would enable criminals to make detailed plans without the risk of being spotted.

Tony Schreiber, co-founder of the Bergvliet Kreupelbosch Meadowridge neighbourhood watch said: "I don't think it is a good idea from a security, as well as an invasion of privacy, point of view for people to have free and unfettered access to up-to-date images of suburbs which would show easy access and exit points."

He said the images would also show which properties had electric fences and security gates.

Google last week announced it was expanding Street View to South Africa and would begin collecting images in metropolitan areas, which would enable browsers ta 360176 street-level view.

The Street View cars are fitted with cameras that record images as they drive. Thousands of pictures are stitched together, a process that can take as long as three months.

Launching the product, Google said this was a "hugely popular feature" of their mapping service, as it allowed users to check out a restaurant before arriving, make travel plans, arrange meeting points, or get a helping hand with geography homework. It also had benefits for house hunters and tourism.

But not everyone is convinced.

Searles described this as an invasion of privacy. He said the imagery was intelligence gathering, and there might be criminals who could use this.

Institute for Security Studies researcher Rudolph Zinn, who also works for the University of South Africa's School of Criminal Justice, said there was a definite risk that criminals could use the feature to determine which property to target, by checking, for example, access routes or the height of a fence. This included access to gated communities.

Gauteng police spokesman Superintendent Eugene Opperman and KwaZulu-Natal police spokesman Superintendent Vincent Mdunge believed that the threat was not that great.

"The information collected is already in the public domain, so it is not a concern for us. The criminals already take their own pictures with their cellphones," said Opperman.

Google spokesperson Rishon Chimboza emphasised that the images would be months old by the time they were published.

"The imagery available on Street View is no different from what people can see when walking or driving down the street themselves, or when viewing images that are already available on a number of real estate and directory sites," said Chimboza.

He said, "When the product is launched in South Africa, users who wish to remove images of their house or property, or who submit a request for additional blurring will report the image via our easy-to-use tool... by clicking on "report a problem" on the bottom left-hand corner of the image.

"From here they complete a short form, in which they indicate the precise image to be removed."

The Street View images have stirred controversy across the world.

In Switzerland and Japan, calls were made to remove the images on the basis that they were an invasion of privacy. Residents of Milton Keynes in England blockaded their town in April and prevented a Google Street View car from taking photographs.

Article by: Annie Dorasamy, Matthew Savides and Doreen Premdev