Prankster fakes pick axe murder for Google Street View

Filed Under: Featured, Google, Law & order, Privacy

Quick! A camera-bedecked Google Street View car just turned down your block!

What do you do?

Flashing is a classic.

But come on, flashing's just not all that classy. At least not for Edinburgh garage owner Dan Thompson, 56, who opted instead for the "homicide via pick axe" scenario.

Thompson found himself having to apologise recently when the resulting image received a complaint from a web user.

Pick axe on Street View

The image shows Thompson lying face down in the street as an obedient employee - that would be Gary the mechanic - gets captured by the Google car in his faux homicidal guilt-hunch.

Or, as Thompson put it:

... Pretending to give me a massage with the pick axe handle.

Thompson says his road is U-shaped. When he saw the Google Street View car pull in on one side, he knew he had about 30 seconds to pull his prank.

That was in August 2012. Some locals called the garage to laugh at the jokers when they spotted the image online, but it took the police over a year to saunter over after having received a complaint.

Thompson tells the tale:

More than a year later, a couple of policemen came around the corner, grinning slightly, saying, "Do you know anything about this?" We said, "We're bang to rights on this, that was us."

Fortunately one of the garage's customers is a constable at the local station. She'd seen the image and knew it was the garage guys "up on a windup," Thompson said:

They weren't exactly coming around in blues and twos expecting to find a bundle of red rags with a skeleton inside. They went off roaring in laughter in a few minutes.

Google automatically blurs faces and vehicle identification numbers for privacy purposes. Likewise, Thompson's and, accomplice Gary's, faces were blurred.

Little that did to stop the duo from being identified, though.

We can't really use this case to determine whether or not Google's blurring ensures our privacy, given that police were already well aware of who might be wearing a red jumpsuit directly in front of a garage owned and staffed by known pranksters.

But there have, in fact, been loads of complaints about blurring being insufficient since Street View first rolled out.

SphinxSome of them are tongue-in-cheek, such as:

This easily deciphered image well could have cost Thomas the Tank Engine his job at Legoland, notes Redditor YouBoxEmYouShipEm:

Well, he had called in sick that day.

More seriously, incidents of privacy invasions have resulted in calls to shut down Street View.

The BBC iterated some of the incidents leading up to one such call in a 2009 article, including:

  • A woman who had moved house to escape a violent partner but who was recognisable outside her new home on Street View.
  • Two colleagues pictured in an apparently compromising position who suffered embarrassment when the image was circulated at their workplace.

In fact, soon after the launch of Street View, the human rights watchdog Privacy International sent a formal complaint about the service to the UK Information Commissioner's Office (ICO), which cited more than 200 reports from members of the public who were identifiable on Street View images, including a man being sick after having a few too many and a picture of a man entering a sex shop in London.

It's kind of ridiculous to assume that Street View ensures privacy after you start finding listicles like this one of awkward Street View photos, many of which show clearly discernible faces.

At any rate, Thompson says he's sorry he wasted constables' time - the police around his neighborhood are "very good," he said, and his antics meant they had to drop round to see what was going on.

If you stumble upon an objectionable image on Street View - phony or real - here's how to report an image, according to Google:

  1. Locate the image on Google Maps in Street View. Make sure that you see the exact image that you want to report.
  2. Click Report a problem in the bottom right of the image window.
  3. Complete the form entitled "Report Inappropriate Street View", and click Submit.

Google then promises to promptly review the report.

Been embarrassed by cameras whirring around your neighborhood? Heard about any good crime-foiling abetted by Street View?

Please do feel free to tell us your own stories in the comments section below.

Image of pick axe courtesy of Google Street View.

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3 Responses to Prankster fakes pick axe murder for Google Street View

  1. Paul Williams · 118 days ago

    I just want my money for Google monetizing my resources.

  2. Bob · 117 days ago

    Today, yes today, "A camera-bedecked Google Street View car just turned down MY block!", and there I was, 10 feet from the camera, staring right at it. How do I contact Google to let them know I want my face blurred out, and better, my entire body removed?

    • Lisa Vaas · 117 days ago

      One assumes you didn't drop your trousers, so you are to be commended for your restraint. Mind you, we would also applaud you for flashing. "I got your Street View right here, Badda BOOM!"

      But given that Google captured your face, you can assume that its facial recognition will automatically blur your face. That probably won't do much to obscure your identity, though. You have to find the photo in question and report it, as outlined in Google's steps on how to report an image, which I passed along in the article, above.

      I'm not sure about the lag time between Street View cars capturing images and those images then being posted, but I seem to recall seeing estimates of that taking a few months.

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About the author

I've been writing about technology, careers, science and health since 1995. I rose to the lofty heights of Executive Editor for eWEEK, popped out with the 2008 crash, joined the freelancer economy, and am still writing for my beloved peeps at places like Sophos's Naked Security, CIO Mag, ComputerWorld, PC Mag, IT Expert Voice, Software Quality Connection, Time, and the US and British editions of HP's Input/Output. I respond to cash and spicy sites, so don't be shy.