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Google holds official ‘Street View’ launch in TA
By BEN HARTMAN
04/23/2012
Company takes steps to ensure security and privacy in its Israel version of the street-level imagery technology.
 
Google has taken steps to ensure security and privacy in its Israel version of the street-level imagery technology “Street View,” the CEO of Google Israel said on Sunday.

Speaking at the official launch of the Israel branch of Street View in Tel Aviv on Sunday, managing director of Google Israel, Africa, and Greece Meir Brand said the company “takes security very seriously” and has held a number of “very productive” meetings with Israeli security officials to ensure the technology does not put lives at risk.

In terms of what actual steps have been taken, Brand mentioned the implementation of technology that blurs faces and license plates in photos, as well as the fact that Street View only covers public areas.

Following its unofficial launch on Thursday, the company has received calls from people complaining about pictures that were not obscured, while many in online forums joked about the technology’s habit of occasionally obscuring faces on billboards and posters.

For a company that prides itself on being the world’s largest search engine and open source of information, Google was rather opaque when asked specific questions about Street View Israel. Both Brand and Google Israel spokesman Paul Solomon would not divulge what steps they have taken to ensure there are no security threats, saying only that they held meetings with Israeli security officials and that Street View only shows public areas.

In addition, Solomon said the company does not have figures on what percentage of Street View Israel users are from countries that Israel considers enemy states, nor how many privacy or security complaints they have received since Thursday night.

While it is true that the technology, which currently only allows users to tour Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa, does not produce live, real-time images of what is taking place on the street, it is not hard to imagine how a would-be terrorist could make use of Street View for intelligence gathering purposes.

The technology does not allow someone to zoom in closely on the entrance of the Arlosoroff train station, but a user can easily get a panoramic view of four different entrances to the Central Bus Station in southern Tel Aviv to gauge what level of security is present at each entrance, as well as which locations appear to have the highest level of foot traffic.

The security precautions are clear when looking at specific locations in Israel. For instance, when traveling down Kaplan Street from Dizengoff, the user hits a force field of sorts at the corner of Dubnov Street, and is not allowed to go any closer to the Kirya military headquarters further down the street. In Jerusalem, Smolenskin Street, where the Prime Minister’s Residence is located, is completely blocked off behind a blurred haze and cannot be entered.

Next to Smolenskin Street however, one can see the heavily- blurred remnants of the Gilad Schalit protest tent and across the street a sign can be seen that says “1929 days in captivity,” indicating the picture was taken on October 5, 2011. As a result of Google’s privacy technology, the face of Gilad Schalit, one of the most famous in Israel, is blurred in two posters at the protest camp.

Also present at the Sunday press conference were Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai and Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav. Both joked about the downsides of the privacy protection, with Huldai saying that blurring the faces keeps potential tourists from realizing how good-looking Tel Aviv residents are, and Yahav saying that it wouldn’t help people trying to size up blind dates ahead of time.

Beyond the jokes, both expressed their belief that the technology will help attract people to visit the cities and experience their sights firsthand.

Google also spoke of the technology as being largely for those wishing to take virtual tours of heritage and cultural sites such as the Via Dolorosa and Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the Jaffa Port and the Bahai Gardens in Haifa. It also provides panoramic views of the Western Wall Plaza, but doesn’t allow users, Jewish or otherwise, to tour the Temple Mount for the time being. That said, they do plan on eventually including the Western Wall tunnels in Google Street View, according to Gadi Royz, a project manager for Google visiting from the US.

Yuval Wagner, of the Disabled Peoples Association in Israel, demonstrated how he can use Street View before heading out to a restaurant to see how high the curb is or if it has wheelchair access, and plan accordingly.

Launched in 2007, Google Street View technology is currently available in 36 countries across the world. According to Google, in the near future the company will expand the technology across Israel, including to cities like Nazareth, Tiberias, Acre, Beersheba, Bat Yam, Daliat al-Carmel and elsewhere, as well as tourism sites like the Dead Sea.
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