Barkat on bike - Emil Salman - September 2011
Mayor Nir Barkat riding a Google Street View bike near Jerusalem’s Old City yesterday. Photo by Emil Salman
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Internet giant Google officially began collecting images for its Street View project in Israel yesterday, announcing that its cars and tricycles will begin traveling throughout Israel, starting with Jerusalem.

Street View, launched by Google in 2007, takes images with 360-degree cameras, enabling users to navigate along streets, neighborhoods and historic sites as if they were actually there.

"Tens of thousands of people from all corners of the world will be able to reach Jerusalem through Street View, to feel it and to walk through it on their computer or cellphone," said Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, who participated in Google's press conference yesterday outside the capital's Old City walls.

"Google Street View is an important tool for increasing the number of tourists to Jerusalem and opening its treasures to the world," said Barkat. "It will allow anyone wanting to come to Jerusalem to plan his trip better and get a taste of it."

Meir Brand, the CEO of Google Israel, added that when the Street View imagery from Israel becomes available online, "Israel will be on the world's digital map, and the whole world will be able to see and experience its unique character."

Jerusalem will be the first Israeli city in which Google will collect images for Street View. Later it will shoot Tel Aviv and Jaffa, Haifa, the Dead Sea, the Ramon Crater, Nazareth, Acre, and other cities.

The first sites Google plans to photograph in Jerusalem include the Old City, the Mahane Yehuda market and the Ein Karem neighborhood; in Haifa, it will start with the German Colony and the Louis Boardwalk; and in Tel Aviv it will photograph sites including the White City and the Jaffa port.

The Street View service has been harshly criticized as an invasion of privacy, which included at one point the inadvertent collection of individuals' data from unsecured wireless networks.

As a result of the criticism, Google applies technology that blurs faces and license plates and has blocked the collection of wireless data. The technology is not perfect, however, as evidenced by a recent report of a Miami woman who was photographed standing nude at her front door.

You never know what will happen

Brand promised to keep tabs on the privacy issue, noting that in Israel Google "will be photographing only in public places that anyone has access to in any case. We don't upload the photos in real time, and we blur faces and license plates."

He noted that once images are available, people can request additional blurring of themselves or their car if they want.

Photography times will be available on a special Google Maps web page called "Where is Street View?" As of last night, the page wasn't yet active for Israel.

Haaretz recently reported that left-wing activists plan to demonstrate against the occupation along Google's planned photography routes, so that pictures of the protests will remain permanently in the database.

Asked about the plan, Brand said that the beauty of the service is "that you never know what's going to happen until you post the pictures."

Asked whether Google would photograph East Jerusalem and ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, he said, "We'll show sensitivity and follow security dictates. We intend to photograph all of Jerusalem. First the Old City and Mahane Yehuda, and then we'd like to cover as much ground as possible. We're a private company; we don't have a political agenda. We're offering a technological service that will let millions of users around the world travel through Jerusalem, Haifa and anywhere else our camera goes."

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat said, "The importance of Google Street View's introduction to Israel is in preserving religious and ritual freedom, and attracting tourists to the city. The more people get to know Jerusalem, the better off the city will be. Thus the city will return to its historical role as a pilgrimage site."

Street View was launched in May 2007 as a free service of Google Maps, and is currently live in 30 different countries. It lets users virtually navigate through streets and historical sites by means of panoramic photos. The service is also available through Google Earth and Google Maps for Mobile.