Imagine being beaten by Google.
That could be the way Artist Sam Yates feels now that Google has just released its Street View, which shows computerized pictures of practically all the homes in Palo Alto (Web Link, then click on Street View).
People in China or France or Nebraska can now put in your (or my) address in the Street View site, and see what our homes look like. Some Palo Altans declare our privacy has been invaded (more about that below).
Yates, as you will recall, was given $65,000 by Palo Alto's Public Arts Commission and Hewlett-Packard to determine "The Color of Palo Alto." To do so, he went on his red scooter all around town for a couple of years taking photos of each home in Palo Alto. The colors will be digitally mixed and calculated to determine the official Palo Alto color. I speculate it will be a muddy brown.
One of the side benefits of his project, we were told, was that he would turn over his digital photos to our police department so they would be able to see our houses on a computer screen, before first responding to an emergency.
The artist, who now lives in southern California, promised the commission he will reveal the color by September 2007 and subsequently give his photos to the police department. The photos also will displayed on the City Hall facade.
Now Google has trumped all of Yates picture-taking of some 18,000 or so properties in the city. Google drove around Palo Alto and took their photos of our houses and have them up on their web site.
In the meantime, a number of residents are complaining their privacy has been invaded by Google because a) they don't like a photo of their home on the web, b) some photos show their cars with their license plate numbers and they are worried about that, and c) having a house on a computer screen worldwide is different from a passerby walking down the street and seeing your house.
Google has said it's on firm legal footing, because a public street is just that, and on a public street there is no guarantee of privacy.
Interestingly, I did not hear the same public outcry about privacy invasion when Yates said he was going to take digital pictures of houses in Palo Alto. The Public Arts Commission loved the idea, as did many at City Hall, including the police department.
I understand the public street is a public street argument, although there's part of me that objects to a further invasion of privacy. For example, I can't say I like having hidden cameras in Palo Alto at traffic lights, in public garages or in stores and other public places, although I understand why they are there. But we used to do just fine without them.
Welcome to our less private digital future.