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February 22, 2011

Google Street View Back in the Hot Seat, This Time With Israel

By Tracey E. Schelmetic, TMCnet Contributor

Google (News - Alert) just can't seem to get a break with its Street View mapping service. Popular with many users worldwide in 27 countries, the service has proven to be distinctly unpopular with many governments.

 Google is currently involved in a number of international legal and legislative imbroglios involving privacy and security in Europe, China and the Middle East. Several countries, most notably Germany, put strict restrictions on Google Street View both for privacy reasons and after its Street View camera cars were found to be accidentally “sniffing” unprotected wireless data from local homeowners and businesses, an action that Google has rectified, blaming a bit of rogue code on the part of one of its developers.

Some of the grief has been from closer to home. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission had threatened action against the company after an investigation that turned up a number of privacy concerns. That headache finally went away: the FTC (News - Alert) sent a letter to an attorney representing Google back in October informing the Internet search giant that it was satisfied with steps taken by Google to alleviate security breaches caused by Street View and would be dropping its investigation.

As with life, one problem disappears and another usually crops up to take its place. Israel announced yesterday it is considering ways for Google Street View to photograph Israeli cities, despite concerns the popular service could be used by terrorists to plot attacks against sensitive locations or political figures. A team of Israeli Cabinet ministers led by Intelligence Minister Dan Meridor instructed experts Monday to try and work with Google to find a safe way to implement the feature “as soon as possible,” according to an official statement. The team is weighing benefits, such as increased visibility for tourist sites, with public safety and personal privacy, said the Associated Press (News - Alert).

The issue has created a special dilemma in Israel, a country that is known as an international high-tech powerhouse but where the public is on constant alert for attacks by Palestinian militants.

In this environment, officials are concerned about putting unprecedented information about potential targets on the Internet. During wartime, the military often bans reporters from revealing locations that have been hit by rockets, out of concern enemies could use the coordinates for future attacks.

Street View is not the first Google service to raise eyebrows in Israel's security establishment.

“We already have problems with Google Earth, which exposes all kinds of facilities,” said retired Lt. Col. Mordechai Kedar, who served for 25 years in Israeli intelligence, who added that Street View functionality could ease and facilitate terrorist attacks.

Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip have already that said they used Google Earth — which makes satellite images from around the world available to the public — to help identify targets in rocket attacks.

If Israeli cities are added to Street View, one official suggested it was likely that restrictions will be imposed on filming security installations. He spoke on condition of anonymity because no final decisions have been made.

Tracey Schelmetic is a contributing editor for TMCnet. To read more of Tracey's articles, please visit her columnist page.

Edited by Tammy Wolf

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