Apple cars roaming L.A., other cities to capture images for Maps app

Purpose behind camera-outfitted vans reportedly tied to Apple becomes clearer

A couple of days after Apple Inc. promised to bring public transit directions to its Maps app, the company is teasing what could be another big update to the service.

On a Web page launched Wednesday, Apple said it is “driving vehicles around the world to collect data which will be used to improve Apple Maps.” The type of data being collected wasn’t specified, but Apple noted it will “blur faces and license plates on collected images prior to publication.”

That suggests Apple is developing a feature similar to Google Maps Street View, which shows street-level images of neighborhoods. Google drivers use vehicles with cameras on top to take millions of photos and then uses software to stitch them together in a way that's easy to navigate online. Street View, which went live in 2007, has led to ongoing concerns over privacy, though.

Technology industry analyst Rob Enderle said Apple executives’ recent comments about being forthright on privacy might have led to the sudden disclosure. The company doesn’t want to be lumped together with Google Inc., Facebook Inc. or other Silicon Valley companies that are known for building businesses by analyzing user data without always being clear on privacy policies.

“Even though they are coming at it late, they are walking the talk now,” Enderle said. “They’re saying, ‘We’re notifying you ahead of time so you can clean up your act. If you’re planning to sunbathe naked in your yard, this probably isn’t the day to do it.’”

Google Maps Street View’s initial images didn’t have enough blurring, so digital voyeurs were able to spot people doing not-so-good things (including picking their nose or smoking when they shouldn’t have been), drivers getting tickets and a man entering an adult bookstore. Last year in Canada, a judge ordered Google to pay more than $2,200 to a woman who felt her privacy was violated by a Street View image that embarrassed her because it showed too much of her chest.

Google also admitted to violating privacy regulations by using the vans to capture data about private Wi-Fi networks, including users’ passwords. The company paid a $7-million fine to settle the issue. Executives said they were unaware that employees had been collecting the Wi-Fi information. A lawsuit alleging that Google’s effort violated wiretapping laws is moving forward.

An Apple spokeswoman declined to comment Wednesday on why its Web page on mapping vehicles arrived months after vans reportedly tied to Apple started appearing on roadways.

The Dodge vans, which have been spotted in Los Angeles and other major cities, have a camera rig on top that looks like a small drone.

The new Web page warns that Apple will be driving through the streets of L.A., Tucson, Dallas and other cities between June 15 and June 30.

The page, maps.apple.com/vehicles/, included a link to an email address where people could express concerns.

Apple introduced the Maps app in 2012 to much ridicule because it provided poor directions and incorrect location details.

The app’s reputation has since rebounded. Indeed, the growing usage of Apple Maps and the rise of Facebook and YouTube knocked Google Maps off its perch as the country’s most widely used app.

But Apple Maps still lags in features. On Monday, Apple plugged one hole, saying that transit directions would be available on the app in major cities beginning this fall.

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