As web innovations go, Google Maps' "Street View" function is pretty fantastic. In cities within nine countries, including our own, you can pull up an image of major street addresses to see what they look like from the street. You can even surf along from image to image, as if you're driving past. Plug in an address and then pick "street view" from under the thumbnail image that springs up.

It's a great way to find something you're going to be seeking later on. Like a restaurant, a friend's house ... or a place to rob. That last advantage of Street View is why people in Broughton, a village in England that has suffered three burglaries in the past six weeks, stood in the street and blocked the way when they saw the Google cameras coming. They wanted to protect their stuff.

An angry mob formed a human barrier to stop one of Google's cars, a black subcompact with a camera stalk affixed to the roof, before it could document the facades of their houses. The Google driver beat it when the cops were called, and the locals praised themselves for scoring one against petty theft.

"How dare anyone take a photo of my home without my consent?" inveighed outraged vigilante Paul Jacobs, who spotted the car and led the revolt. "I told the driver he was not only invading our privacy but also facilitating crime." The neighbors are now circulating a petition to have Google remove their street from the database of images. Google said it would consider removing the images, but only after they were posted, not before.

Using Google Street View to case a joint is one novel use of the technology, although not a very good one. The stills are often weeks and months old by the time they reach the web, and they're not updated on a basis regular enough to establish a pattern in the lifestyles of the residents.

Governments have complained Google Earth, which takes aerial shots, could be used to help terrorists plan attacks, and that makes a bit more sense, but the needs of a terrorist are different from those of a petty crook. Still, Street View is fun for armchair travel, and some blogs chronicle the fun stuff that the Google cars take pictures of. Leaf through this one to find shots of puking pedestrians, car accidents, and public urination.

That'll save you the price of a movie ticket one night. But will it help you figure out how to jigger the locks in a ritzy neighborhood? Doubtful. Big Brother's constant encroachment is a bummer, but if you want to reduce his spy-power in your life, a good start would be to point the finger at him for something that's actually his fault.

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