The virtual view from the streets of Britain

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Google's new 360-degree cameras in privacy row

It's a blissfully sunny day at 191 Marsh Wall, home to the offices of
The Independent – perfect for a stroll in the outdoors. There, as you leave the building, is one of our illustrious correspondents reading the paper in the sunshine. A cyclist breezes past at the pedestrian crossing. Where do you want to go today? How about... Church Street, Bradford?

Thanks to the Google Street View service, launched in Britain yesterday, a Londoner can join the pedestrians wandering through the West Yorkshire city in seconds. Twenty-five British cities have been photo-mapped in three dimensions after the US search engine giant spent a year touring 22,000 miles in cars with roof-mounted 360-degree cameras. The images were uploaded to the Google Street View site, allowing internet users to travel from the streets of Southampton to Aberdeen and back again at the click of a mouse.

Users can access the service via Google's already well-established map service. Estate agents are thought likely to use the opportunity to show buyers the locale surrounding one of their prospective properties. And figures from the tourism industry have welcomed the opportunity to showcase holiday hotspots.

Google blurred the faces of people visible on the service and also rendered car number plates illegible, after major concerns over privacy accompanied the launch of the technology in America two years ago. Cities across the Netherlands, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, France, Spain, and Italy are also included, so a British user can easily hop across the world to check out the view Down Under.

The relatively late take-up of the technology on these shores was down to one thing: muggy British weather. Relentlessly cloudy conditions, together with rain and snow, hampered efforts to get pictures clear enough for the demands of Google.

Culturally-minded users can also find their way to the scenes of some of our great paintings. The works of Turner, Constable and other artists can be rendered onscreen alongside the locations that inspired them, thanks to the participation of Tate Britain.

Images seen on Google Street View are always several months old, in an attempt to allay criticism about unacceptable intrusion into people's privacy. The American firm has said that it will remove any images deemed offensive, and intends to further update and expand the service in months to come. The Information Commissioner's office said it was "satisfied" that the protections installed were "adequate".

Ed Parsons, Google's geospatial technologist, said: "We recognise that people do have some concerns in terms of privacy. But this is the sort of level of detail you would get from driving down a road, the sort of picture you would see in an estate agent's window."

But Simon Davies, the director of Privacy International, said: "The laws are very clear. Prior consent is required before people's personal information can be captured and used by a commercial organisation. We don't see why Google should be exempt from this."

The cities on Google Street View are: London, Edinburgh, Leeds, Bradford, Cambridge, Cardiff, Belfast, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Oxford, Sheffield, Nottingham, Derby, Bristol, Coventry, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Swansea, York, Newcastle, Dundee, Southampton, Norwich and Scunthorpe.

But a real stroll in the sun beats a virtual one. If only one could really swap E14 for the Upper East Side so easily.

We spy: With a Google eye

Yesterday, Independent staff spied on their own homes using Google Street View. What did they see?

Carl Reader noticed that the number plate of his car was clearly decipherable.

Andy McSmith wondered why his mother's car was outside, and why there are always so many leaves outside his house.

Emma Bamford was reminded of construction work that has now, thankfully, stopped.

Dan Barber saw himself painting his ceiling.

Amol Rajan noticed that his little Sudanese window statues had fallen over.

Jeremy Laurance realised that his gorgeous silver birch is one of north London's finest.

Rhodri Jones took another look at the house he is buying.

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