Inside Higher Ed: Google at the gates

By Steve Kolowich for Inside Higher Ed

July 9, 2012




For several years Google has been making inroads into the virtual infrastructure of college campuses. Now, the company is angling to make inroads into colleges’ physical infrastructure by extending Street View, its 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 to its camera-mounted cars, which have been driving on public roads around the globe for years taking panoramic photos as part of the company’s attempt to add another layer of visual information to the traditional, bird’s-eye view of Google Maps.

So far the company has been around at least American colleges and universities, and dozens more around the world, taking photographic tours of open-air walkways using cameras mounted on customised tricycles resembling high-tech rickshaws.

The company’s pitch to universities is that anyone with an internet connection will be able to stroll their grounds virtually, helping institutions to satisfy the curiosity of prospective students, nostalgic alumni and helicopter parents, according to Deanna Yick, a Google spokeswoman.

The University of California at Riverside invited Google on campus to improve its visibility. The admissions office suggested it might benefit the university, a sometimes-overlooked member of the UC system, 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 do not exactly lack visibility, such as Dartmouth College, Stanford University and the University of Pennsylvania. But whether the company is seeking to join up with a “prestige” partner – or being wooed by a less well-known college – the Google tricycles 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 licence plates, and also offers an online form for people to request that certain images be removed. As for universities that might worry about unflattering images making it on to the web, the company says it is willing to avoid areas of campus that are under construction. It also gives universities the opportunity to vet the images before they go live. “We’ll abide by any limitations they might want,” says Yick.

“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 the University of Pennsylvania. “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 that 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 over allegations that it used its Street View cars to collect data from unsecured wireless networks, although it concluded that the company did not breach any laws. Google has also faced repeated challenges in other countries over what data its vehicles might have picked up in addition to 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.

However, Vaidhyanathan concedes that 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 programme, adding that universities face a more immediate data risk by outsourcing campus email 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 scepticism, 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.” This person might, for example, be dealing with a stalker, and 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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