Don't be evil.

Google are famous for their (unofficial?) company motto: “Don’t be evil.”

Their fun Street View service eased its way into action in the UK yesterday, and then got picked up by the media.

The BBC has been following the story, and has published this series of images from and of the Street View cars — did you spot them anywhere last summer? You’d know if you had. (I spied the car in Dundonald, and it may have taken my picture. I was too far away to be sure that it’s my car in the photo.)

How do you feel about the whole thing?

The Daily Mail reacted pretty much as you’d expect them to, emphasising controversy. Junior was also quick to criticize the availability of imagery around Northern Ireland. I particularly like his suggestion that everyone who viewed a picture of a police station “should be traced by the security services.”

It is possible to ask Google to remove imagery, and they have taken some down already.

The main concerns seem to be that Street View invades privacy and that it may be useful to criminals.

Maybe I’m just not paranoid enough (which would be hard to say about me, really), but surely there’s nothing here that a determined criminal, or — dare I say it — terrorist, couldn’t find out pretty easily elsewhere? The fear of terrorists armed with photographs is almost totally baseless, and surely a simple street map is almost as (theoretically) useful. If you wanted to see what the Google Street View car saw, all you need to do is take a walk or a drive down that street.

The privacy question is more complicated. I was quite surprised, in a not altogether good way, when I saw how detailed the images of my parents’ house are. What Google says is true: they don’t show anything that isn’t in clear view of the public roads, which means technically there is no legal concern. Indeed, by my non-professional but I hope well-informed understanding, the contention in that Daily Mail article that this is using people’s likenesses commercially is irrelevant: “commercial use” generally refers to advertising, where you could be seen as endorsing a product, and Google obscure faces anyway. Making money using images is incidental to this sense of “commercial”. (Of course, IANAL, so don’t go by what I say.)

Legally it seems fine, and, according to the articles linked above, Google have been in dialogue with the Information Commissioner to make sure of that. That doesn’t make it completely comfortable, though.

That said, while I get uncomfortable with the accessibility of pictures of my family’s homes, I enjoy looking at other places on Street View. That makes it complicated.

It’s like many things Google does: they’re handling and controlling a frightening amount of information (they get all my email, my RSS subscriptions, my searches, everything any of us writes online), but they do it so well. Perhaps we’re alright, as long as they stick to that motto: don’t be evil.