People keep finding late loved ones on Google Maps
For years, Google Maps has offered Street View, which assembles panoramic camera images to recreate a digital facsimile of real-world physical spaces that you can explore online. Some people find that if they scroll down the platform long enough and use a time travel feature, they might just find the image of a deceased loved one captured by one of Google’s cameras – and apparently saved in Google Maps forever.
In recent days, several publications announcing these findings have gone viral. One of the British writer Sherri Turner has already accumulated tens of thousands of “Like” on Twitter. A similar tweet from a anonymous confession account also caught the attention of not only other Twitter users, but also the mainstream media. The tweets have turned into discussion threads where others share Google Maps search stories of their deceased loved ones.
I look at my mom’s old house on Google Maps Street View, the house where I grew up. It says “Image captured in May 2009”. There is light in his room. It’s still her home, she’s still alive, I still visit her every few months on the train to Bodmin Parkway,
– Sherri Turner (@ STurner4077) June 16, 2021
This isn’t the first time people have used the time travel feature in Street View to search for the missing on Google Maps – or to share the experience on social media. Google released Street View in 2007, and these types of viral Twitter posts are happening since at least 2013. The trend indicates that Google is moving forward in its never-ending quest to map the entire world (Street View currently includes 87 countries) and is constantly updating this data. Somewhere along the way, Google Maps users realize that this process has unintended consequences.
This effect suggests that creating these 360-degree views of the world requires momentary monitoring. Google Maps uses a large number of cameras to create the immersive experience offered by Street View. Google says digital recreation of physical world is powered by millions of cameras which capture multiple angles, collected by people “driving, pedaling, navigating, strolling and capturing images”. The company has also decided to allow users to submit their own images to complement its own Street View. While helping people remember their deceased family members is not really what Google Maps seeks, a spokesperson told Recode it was ‘warming’ that people were using the platform. in this way.
Turner, the writer, told Recode that she discovered the time travel feature in Street View earlier this week, as she tried to see what a house that belonged to her late, late mother looked like almost four years ago now. She eventually found out that the last image available on Street View was from 2009. She showed the house with a light on, which indicated to Turner that her mother was home when the image was captured. “It makes it a bit more of something that you feel like you’ve stumbled upon rather than something that you created,” she told Recode.
Again, people have been discovering footage of their deceased loved ones on Street View for some time. This was happening even before Google introduced the time travel feature. The phenomenon also sparked a whole news cycle last year, when a Twitter user said he found an image of his late grandfather on Street View. The tweet generated over 400,000 likes.
But the story isn’t limited to viral content. The images are a reminder that many people who appear in Street View are unaware that their photos are being taken and that those who are deceased have no say in whether or not their image stays on the service.
More generally, tech companies like Google hold much of the power over this sensitive and personal data, and citizens have not played a real role in setting standards for how data associated with small people should be. be processed. This is especially important because Google’s approach to this data may not match the religious and cultural norms surrounding death practiced by many of its users around the world.
“Increasingly, the majority of our online users will be from countries in the south of the world,” Faheem Hussain, professor at Arizona State University’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society, told Recode. “What we are seeing more and more is the lack of [the] participation of the people in this conception.
Late family members aren’t the only surprising finds on Google Maps. There are entire online communities devoted to exploring the mapping platform for unusual things, identifying everything from wild animals to sandstorms. There’s also a much darker side to the apparent ubiquity of Street View and Google Maps in general, one that raises a myriad of concerns about people’s privacy. In 2013, for example, a Californian father had to ask Google to remove an aerial image of his son’s corpse. Google says it has systems in place to scramble the personal identification information of passers-by and license plates in the photos it takes. But it is clear that some people can still be identified if a family member knows what they are looking for.
The persistent tendency to find lost loved ones inevitably reminds us that Google plays a major role in documenting our daily lives over time. There is no sign that the digital artifacts kept in Street View will be extinct anytime soon. Instead, they might just become part of how history is recorded in a process over which we don’t necessarily have control.
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