Rare photo puts Google operations on view 

It was a case of the photographer turned subject.

Recently, North Beach resident Damian Spain snapped a photo of a Google car equipped with roof-mounted cameras on one of its secretive missions to capture images for its Google Maps street view, a handy Web tool that allows people to navigate within street-level imagery. The driver of the Toyota Prius used by Google had been pulled over by the U.S. Park Police in the Presidio.

The 35-year-old software programmer posted the picture online, thinking his friends would find it funny.

Instead, he said he was flooded with requests from local newspapers and online blogs requesting publishing rights for the apparently rare sighting.

"Up until that point, I had 28,000 views of all my pictures. But that one picture [of the Google camera car] has already had 103,000 hits," Spain said.

The interest in the cars and Google Maps street view expands beyond the photo Spain posted.

But company officials have been tight-lipped on the details of the filming, refusing to reveal how many cars are in its fleet, where the cars might be filming at any given time or how long the filming will continue.

A British television station said it "stumbled" on one of the cars in north London on Friday, proclaiming it had photographed "what is believed to be the first evidence of Google’s controversial new street view service in the U.K."

Google officials say controversy about whether the filming violates privacy is partly to blame for the secrecy. Though the Mountain View-based company says public filming is legal, it fears angered residents might harass the drivers or tamper with the expensive cameras.

"It’s to protect the technology," Google spokeswoman Elaine Filadelso said. "But it’s not like we’re being sneaky. The cars have a Google logo on them."

In a way, the mystery and controversy behind Google’s apparent plan to offer users the full-view of the world from a laptop has only increased the success of the mapping site, Filadelso said.

Dozens of online forums are littered with claims of Google camera car sightings — San Francisco residents in recent weeks claim to have spotted the cars in neighborhoods including the Mission district, the Marina and the Outer Sunset.

Filadelso, who said Google has filmed much of the Bay Area, including on highways and in city parks, says filming on public roads is legal.

Nevertheless, anyone who feels uncomfortable seeing footage of their home online can contact Google and have the image removed right away, she said.

maldax@sfexaminer.com

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