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Some in Israel warn against Google Street View

The government decides to work with Google to bring Street View to Israel in the coming months, but some cabinet members worry that the street-level photographs will help terrorists plan attacks.

February 22, 2011|By Jessica Guynn, Los Angeles Times
  • Israeli Cabinet members have decided to work with Google on issues related to a possible launch of Street View. Above, a Google camera on a snowmobile near the Matterhorn in Switzerland.
Israeli Cabinet members have decided to work with Google on issues related… (Olivier Maire, European…)

Reporting from San Francisco — Google's popular Street View map service has sparked privacy debates around the globe.

But in Israel, government officials are worried that the service could endanger public figures by giving terrorists detailed information that could be used in carrying out attacks.

Israel said Monday that it was weighing whether to allow Google to photograph Israeli cities to promote tourist sites despite risks to privacy and safety. Street View allows users to virtually tour locations in 27 countries. Google collects three-dimensional images for the service by dispatching a fleet of camera-equipped vehicles to the locations.

Israeli Cabinet members, led by Intelligence Minister Dan Meridor, have told experts to find a safe way to introduce the feature "as soon as possible," according to an official statement. Cabinet members discussed the security and privacy implications of Google Street View on Monday and decided to work with Google in launching the service in the coming months, according to a statement.

Google said it had no specific time frame for launching Street View in Israel. In an e-mailed statement, a spokesperson said: "We aim to offer the benefits of street-level imagery to users all around the world, however, we have nothing specific to announce at this time."

But some in Israel are sounding the alarm.

"We already have problems with Google Earth, which exposes all kinds of facilities," retired Lt. Col. Mordechai Kedar told the Associated Press. The 25-year veteran of Israeli intelligence said that Street View could facilitate terrorist attacks.

Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip have said they use Google Earth, which displays satellite images of homes and buildings, to identify targets for rocket attacks.

The privacy watchdog group Center for Digital Democracy warned of another potential downside for Israeli citizens: It could be used for political purposes, including government surveillance.

"It will be the Israeli security forces, in addition to users, that will be viewing the system to identify potential threats and those suspected of potential anti-governmental actions," said Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the group. "The melding of governmental and commercial interests to enhance citizen eavesdropping is a chilling prospect."

Israel has long tried to strike a balance between the innovation in its booming high-tech sector and the risk of terrorism. Chester pointed to Google's acquisition of Quiksee, an Israeli company that allows users to upload videos of places to Google Maps.

Google Street View has encountered intense scrutiny from lawmakers and regulators in a number of countries and in the United States, where there are concerns that Street View invades personal privacy. Google further raised privacy anxieties last year when it admitted that its vehicles inadvertently collected unencrypted data from Wi-Fi networks, setting off an intense firestorm of criticism. Google has stopped collecting Wi-Fi data for location-based services.

Google declined to say Monday which Israeli cities it might send Street View vehicles to, but it is said to be interested in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and possibly Haifa.

Even if Israel permits Google to move forward, it will probably prohibit sensitive areas from being photographed. That could include the streets where the prime minister and the president live, government compounds, security installations, power stations, foreign embassies and other high-security locations.

Andre Oboler, director of the Community Internet Engagement Project at the Zionist Federation of Australia, wrote in a blog post on the Jerusalem Post website that Street View could boost tourism in public places of historical, cultural and religious interest. But he warned against "blanket permission" because of risks to public safety and personal privacy.

"Gated communities, kibbutzim and villages for new immigrants in particular should have a right to keep out the Street View car, or to invite it in. The default should be exclusion until the local community give permission," Oboler wrote.

He also suggested that Israel negotiate with Google on key points, such as housing the Street View data collected on servers in Israel, not the United States, and enlisting Google's help in combating anti-Semitism.

jessica.guynn@latimes.com

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