Four years ago, 14-year-old Kevin Barrera was beaten, shot and left to die on the railroad tracks in Richmond, California. Today, his family are faced with a daily reminder of his death: in fact, all they need to do is visit Google Maps, enter the correct coordinates, and they'll be taken to a satellite image of the crime scene, complete with police car, officers on the scene – and Barrera's body.
Google has so far not responded to family requests to take the images down. "When I see this image, that's still like that happened yesterday,” Kevin's father, Jose Barrera, told the local news network KTVU. “And that brings me back to a lot of memories." The killer was never found, which makes the situation even more heartbreaking for the grieving family.
Since its launch in 2006, Google Maps has been hailed as a revolutionary way to navigate the world. Armchair explorers can traverse street views of everything from the Galapagos Islands to the labyrinthine canals of Venice from the comfort of home. But for every playful Galapagos seal captured by Google cameras, there are cases like those of the Barrera family: occasions when you start thinking that, hey, maybe a global undertaking to map everything around us is actually a terrible idea, and doesn't contribute to the sum total of human knowledge.
The more you squint at the satellite image of the crime scene in Richmond, which is clear enough for you to see exactly what Barrera was wearing when he died (white shirt, white trainers – the image above has been cropped to exclude Barrera) – the more you start thinking that maybe seeing playful Galapagos seals doesn't mean anything compared to an unwarranted intrusion into private bereavements.
Artist Jon Rafman touches on these issues in his 9-Eyes project. Named after the nine eyes mounted on a Google Street View car, Rafman scours Google Maps for any images that are strange, eerie or downright inexplicable: a cow dragging its broken legs across a deserted highway, for instance, or a man trussed up in the back of a van, watched over by an armed police officer.
"[Google Maps] represents a new type of surveillance very different from the totalitarian version depicted in books like 1984," Rafman told Dazed. Some of the subjects in his images look thrilled to be captured by Google, waving and smiling for the camera. There are people who actively dress up and mug for the benefit of Google's all-seeing eye – in 2008, an entire group of residents in Pittsburgh staged a marching band parade when they realised the Street View car was in town.
Google, for its part, doesn't remove images from Maps – although it does disguise people's faces and if requested, will blur out offending details such as a user's private residence. But Google Earth, which buys imagery from satellites, doesn't have such user-friendly considerations.
Jose Barrera has said that he'll undertake legal action against Google if they don't remove the offending image, but it looks unlikely. Technology analyst Rob Enderle is doubtful Google will respond to the Barrera family's request. “When they remove it for one person for one thing, then how do they not do it for others?” said Enderle. “And so they've found it easier just to say no.”
Till then, the body of a teenager is just another an unfortunate casaulty in the ongoing expansion of Google Maps. Smile for the camera.
UPDATE: Google has announced that the imagery will be replaced soon. "Google has never accelerated the replacement of updated satellite imagery from our maps before, but given the circumstances we wanted to make an exception in this case," said Brian McClendon, vice president of Google Maps.
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