Google at the Gates

Having taken over e-mail and other cloud computing services at many colleges, the company looks to make visual maps of campuses. As usual, the project faces privacy concerns.

July 9, 2012

For several years Google has been making steady inroads on the virtual infrastructure of college campuses. Now the company is angling to make inroads on colleges’ physical infrastructure by extending Street View, its massive visual mapping project, to include campus walkways.

The Google Street View University Partners project, inaugurated in 2009, is part of a larger effort by Google to begin mapping private and public spaces that are not accessible by its camera-mounted cars, which have been driving on public roadways around the globe for years taking panoramic photos as part of the company’s attempt to add a layer of visual simulation to the traditional, bird’s-eye view of Google Maps.

So far the company has taken photographic tours of open-air walkways at at least 27 American colleges and universities, and dozens more around the world, using cameras mounted on customized “trikes” resembling high-tech rickshaws.

The company’s pitch to universities is that enabling anybody with an Internet connection to virtually stroll the grounds will help institutions satisfy the curiosity of prospective students, nostalgic alumni and helicopter parents, according to Deanna Yick, a Google spokeswoman.

For the University of California at Riverside, which welcomed the Google trike to campus, the motivation was improving the visibility of a sometimes-overlooked member of the UC system. It was the admissions office that suggested that it might behoove the university to become part of what has become a popular cartographic authority in the digital age, according to James Grant, assistant vice chancellor of strategic communications at Riverside.

“We’re a UC campus that historically, at times, has been overshadowed by the big-name campuses in the UC system,” says Grant. This has persisted despite the campus expanding its student body by a factor of three and adding many new buildings in the past two decades, he says. “Why not look for an advantage and make sure people are aware of what we’ve got right now?” says Grant.

Google has also managed to win the approval of some private institutions that are not exactly hurting for visibility, such as Dartmouth College, Stanford University and the University of Pennsylvania. But whether the company is pitching a “prestige” partner or being pitched by a less well-known college, the Google trikes are not showing up on campuses without an invitation -- nor without convincing campus officials that the project will not endanger the privacy of students or the institution.

Google uses algorithms to automatically blur faces and license plates, and also offers an online form where people can request that certain images be removed. As for universities that might worry about unflattering images making it to the Web, the company says it is willing to avoid areas of campus that are under construction and give universities the opportunity to vet the images before they go live. “We’ll abide by any limitations they might want,” says Yick, the Google spokeswoman.

“Privacy was a big part of the discussions, and the team asked a lot of questions and were satisfied,” says Lauren Steinfeld, the chief privacy officer at Penn. “There wasn’t a lot of contention about how this was going to be done.”

But Siva Vaidhyanathan, a professor of media studies at the University of Virginia and a prominent critic of Google, says universities should not be so credulous about the company’s ability to live up to its privacy pledges.

The Federal Communications Commission has investigated Google for allegedly using its Street View cars to collect data from unsecured wireless networks, and the company has faced repeated challenges abroad over what data Google’s vehicles have accrued beyond mere photographs. “The most important thing we’ve learned about Google Street View over the past couple of years is that Google can’t be trusted when it comes to living up to its word on protecting user privacy,” says Vaidhyanathan.

It would be “really stupid,” and probably unlikely, for Google to intentionally trawl campus networks for data under the auspices of the Street View University Partners program, says Vaidhyanathan, adding that universities face a more immediate data risk by outsourcing campus e-mail and other cloud services to Google.  

But even when it comes to the risks posed by Google’s photography project -- such as imperfections in the company’s face-blurring software, or the inadequacy of that technique in making a person unidentifiable -- university officials should regard a Street View partnership with skepticism, he says.

“We’re not talking about a great data meltdown,” says Vaidhyanathan. “But we are talking about the possibility of a person being identifiable as part of a university community” -- a person who might be dealing with a stalker, and who might not know to make a takedown request until after it is too late.

“Those are things that we have to keep in mind when dealing with real human beings through these systems,” he says. “Google tends not to think of real human beings, but people at universities have that responsibility.”

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