Google has been upsetting people again with its Street View cameras, but this time the complaints are not coming from outraged residents concerned about intrusions into their private life. The latest whinge about the all-seeing Google eye has come from Botswana's opposition newspaper which claims the cameras have compromised national security by photographing military installations, the President's office and the American embassy.
Botswana is only the second African nation to get Street View, after South Africa, and the protest has been met with some surprise. The country is arguably one of the most peaceful in Africa and its army has never been involved in a real war or even civil conflict. Instead it is used for rather less secretive missions such as disaster relief and anti-poaching. The government itself is understandably relaxed about Google's cameras being free to roam around the country, 70 per cent of which is made up of the very empty Kalahari Desert anyway.
No issues with Google
A government spokesman responded to the complaint by saying they have no issues with Google and had worked with the company on a checklist of what could be photographed and what was out of bounds. If anything slips through the net the government has the right to have it removed. He suggested the newspaper might have confused Street View with Google Earth which does show locations such as military installations, albeit in much less useful detail.
The photographing of Botswana might actually benefit the country by providing a welcome boost to tourism. Street View allows users to explore places like the stunning Kalahari Desert and the Okavango Swamp, the biggest inland river delta in the world and one of the treasures of Africa's remaining wilderness. Google's cameras were mounted on off-road vehicles to capture the best of the wild scenery, while in urban centres they were used more conventionally to deliver a street-by-street view of houses and local businesses.
The incident is by no means the first time Google has come under fire for Street View, which now covers more than 30 countries. The company has faced complaints, and civil action, from many people around the world who say it has violated their right to privacy. In Japan the company had to re-shoot images for twelve cities after residents complained that the cameras were positioned so high they were capturing images of private front gardens, while in France it is facing action from a man caught relieving himself in his yard.
Although the latest complaint may be little more than a bout of political in-fighting it does underscore Google's determination to engage with the world at a very local level. The company is actively working to deliver geographically relevant results to users searching for local businesses or attractions, and Street View, along with Google Maps, is a key component of this initiative. It delivers distinct advantages for business owners who can embed Google Maps into their web site for free as an additional means of raising their profile and promoting themselves across the internet.
It has also given rise to a new awareness of the importance of local search. "Google's local initiative takes many forms and offers great opportunities for sites aimed at local audiences," says Alex Wares, managing director of leading London digital agency Mediarun. "To succeed in their market, local businesses need to be looking very hard right now at ways of optimising their site to rank at the top of local search results." Despite the political fall-out, the more forward-looking businesses in Botswana are likely to be doing just that over the coming months.