At street level, it’s clear that the 65-foot mural on Girard Avenue in West Philly is of one of the city’s most famous sons, Will Smith.
But in Google Street View, Smith’s face in the painting is blurred beyond recognition — and he’s not the only Philly mural subject getting the abstract-art treatment by Google.
Of a random sampling of 30 Philly murals that included people, about three-quarters had some degree of facial blurring applied in Street View.
In some murals featuring a single individual, like the one of Smith and one of the musician John Coltrane at 29th and Diamond Streets in North Philly, the faces are totally blurred. But in others, like the one on Seventh Street in Northern Liberties of Edgar Allan Poe and one of Octavius V. Catto on Catharine Street in Graduate Hospital, the faces remain fully intact.
Stranger still are instances where multiple people are featured in a mural — but only some of the faces are blurred. The Legendary Dixie Hummingbirds mural on 15th Street in North Philadelphia features all six members of the gospel music group, but only one face gets blurred in Street View.
On Monmouth Street in Kensington, the mural Healing Beings Through Connection features 27 people. The faces that get blurred change depending on which direction it is viewed in Street View.
Google began blurring faces and license plates in Street View in 2008 as questions and concerns about privacy arose. According to Google spokesperson Ben Jose, automatic face-blurring technology is applied to all images in Street View.
So why is Google’s blurring algorithm messing with Philly’s street art?
“In this instance, it appears that our face-blurring feature may be a little overzealous, likely because some of the faces appeared so life-like,” Jose said in an emailed statement.
We knew it! Our murals are just too good.
Jane Golden, executive director of Mural Arts Philadelphia — the organization that’s overseen the creation of most of the city’s 3,600-plus murals — was surprised to learn that faces in some murals were getting blurred in Street View.
“It’s a testament to the high quality of Mural Arts Philadelphia artists that their work is so life-like that the Google program thinks they are real,” she said. “Hopefully they can figure out how to solve the issue so that even those outside of Philadelphia can enjoy our murals around the world.”
With facial blurring algorithms, false positive are possible, Drexel University computer science professor Jeffrey Popyack said.
“Of course, the technology isn’t perfect, so it’s likely to miss some faces and misidentify other things as faces,” he said. “A good sanity check on what level of precision to expect can be found by uploading pictures to Facebook. They’re pretty good at isolating faces in a picture and either identifying the subjects or asking you to do so. But upload a group picture, and they often miss some faces, too.”
Indeed, the images of people in Philly’s murals aren’t the only things Google Street View has misidentified as a human.
In 2016, a Street View user discovered that the site had blurred out the face of a cow in Cambridge, England, “to protect its identity,” according to the cheeky headline on one British news site.