Search Engines Going Far Beyond Maps
The images are so detailed you can tell whether a neighbor's hedge was recently trimmed or whether the car parked in front of a favorite local eatery might belong to a friend.
Such views are available online for anyone to see from some of the biggest names on the Internet, including Amazon.com Inc., Microsoft Corp. and Google Inc.
The companies' newly evolving local search and mapping services, where the photographic images are typically rendered as search results, make it easier than ever to scout out everything from vacation destinations to a new hairdresser.
Never before have searchable databases of detailed pictures covering wide swaths of urban areas been readily available like this to the public.
And that has privacy advocates worried about the risks of such picture perfect exposure to vulnerable citizens such as women in domestic violence shelters.
"I think there are going to be privacy issues, no doubt about it — somebody's going to feel uncomfortable with it," said Charlene Li of Forrester Research. "So the question becomes, `What are the tradeoffs? Is the value worth it?'"
Yes, according to research by Forrester.
Li said she's already seeing consumer interest, and she expects companies to continue to develop such tools because they see the potential for online advertising from local businesses who may not want to buy national online ads.
Microsoft, which late last year began offering detailed images of metropolitan areas taken from airplanes, said last week that it would team with Verizon Communications Inc. to distribute local business advertisements from Verizon's superpages.com on Microsoft's local search pages.
And Amazon, whose A9 subsidiary has since August offered street-level images taken from vans, says the main goal of its site is to help people find local businesses. The company's site currently lists images from two dozen U.S. cities.
The most detailed images available from Microsoft's service are currently only for some U.S. cities, and there are some satellite images of international locations. Google offers images from all over the world, but the amount of detail varies greatly depending on the location.
For example, users scouting out urban areas like Seattle or New York City can make out individual houses and buildings, while those living in Lander, Wyo., see a much less detailed view with Google and only get a graphic map with Microsoft's service.
Google's service mostly gets its images from satellites, and while they're not nearly as detailed as those of Amazon or Microsoft, they are nevertheless good enough to recognize one's home.
John Hanke, a product director at Google, says the technology is popular for figuring out whether a vacation spot is all it's cracked up to be — Is that "beachfront" hotel really on the beach, or across the highway from the beach? — and for househunting.
Daniel DeConinck, an engineer and entrepreuner living in Toronto, used Google's site to find an accountant close to his house, and has since used it to scout out nearby bicycle shops and computer retailers. He thinks it has the potential to one day replace the local yellow pages.
"Anyone who I've shown Google Maps to, their jaw just drops when they see that," he said.
For her part, Li is somewhat skeptical that mom-and-pop shops will quickly get on board and make photo-enriched local search a big money-maker.
"I think it's going to be really slow to take off, just knowing small businesses," she said. "You're talking about a fundamental change in how they do business."
For now, however, many people appear to be visiting the fledgling offerings simply to satisfy their curiosity.
Users who visit Microsoft's "Windows Live Local" often first type in a street address — presumably their own house — and then go searching for a landmark, like Seattle's Space Needle, said Justin Osmer, a Microsoft product manager.
A9's street-level views of some U.S. cities, meanwhile, include clear pictures of people and cars when they happen to be in the frame. The aim is to give people what A9 Vice President Barnaby Dorfman calls "a very human experience," similar to what you would see walking or driving down a street.
Pam Dixon of the World Privacy Forum says such images can potentially be used to track people who are vulnerable.
She said A9 removed images of shelters upon her request and now gives people the option to removing their personal information from its directories.
She's hoping that such policies will become widespread.
"I really think you should have the option to say, 'No. No, thanks,'" she said.
But the companies say that, so far, they have received few complaints.
Hanke argues that some images available on Google's site are already available through local and federal government data, such as from the
U.S. Geological Survey. But the government-supplied images aren't as well organized or easily accessible as those available commercially.
He also said that someone could learn much more by just walking down a street than by looking at Google's images.
Some foreign governments have complained of security concerns raised by the Google images. Hanke said the company has fielded concerns raised by some governments, but has not altered any images.
Osmer said Microsoft has altered some of its images, such as those of the White House, to address security concerns. None, he said, is close enough that you can recognize faces.
Lt. Paul Vernon with the Los Angeles Police Department said he hasn't heard of any law enforcement officials expressing concern about such online images.
In fact Vernon said, some police officers in Los Angeles have even found the sites to be helpful for quickly mapping out a location or scouting out an area where a crime has been suspected.
Amazon, Google and Microsoft all say they are working to expand their offerings, and perhaps even add other image-based search tools.
Osmer said Microsoft wouldn't rule out showing live aerial images — instead of the static ones, often months old, that currently populate the sites — for things like the Super Bowl or traffic navigation.
He also said it's hard to say whether Microsoft would offer more detailed views later on.
"I don't think we'll get to the point where you can zoom in and see the shoelaces on someone's shoe, but maybe it would make sense to get a close view to read a sign or navigate a space," he said.
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