Google's fleet of camera cars is hitting the roads of German cities again this week - but this time without the tailwind of controversy that surrounded their previous snapping frenzies.
The vehicles arrived in Berlin on Monday to collect information for Google Maps and not, pointedly, Google Street View. Pointedly, because the company met with a wave of privacy concerns last time it attempted to document the streets of the country's major cities.
Following the outcry, Google announced in 2011 that it would not update Street View pictures taken in 2008 and 2009. But it has continued to update its satellite photographs, and the latest available aerial pictures of Berlin are just a few weeks old.
To avoid upsetting the locals, Google has said that all of the newly captured car picture data will be permanently anonymised and left unpublished.
Data protection activists profess no qualms about Google cars zipping around the capital. Since there are no plans to publish the images, there have been no objections, a stark contrast to the opposition mounted over the Street View images.
As the city's Google Maps information is brought bang up to date, Berlin's Street View pictures are left frozen in time.
But as the city's Google Maps information is brought bang up to date, Berlin's Street View pictures are left frozen in time. For many city dwellers, however, this provides a great opportunity to pore over how much the capital has changed in just five years.
For example, still standing there on Breitscheidplatz, a major public square that used to mark the centre of the old West Berlin, is the once admired sphere-shaped movie theater that was built in 1989 and once offered a 360-degree film experience. It was finally given to the Babelsberg movie studio in 2010 to make room for the redevelopment of the Bikini building, now a shopping and leisure complex. It too can be seen in its unreconstructed form, with the ground floor stores filled with junk.
If you scroll further west, you’ll find the Schimmelpfeng house with its once-famous four-part neon sign extolling the virtue's of the city's newspaper of record, Der Tagesspiegel. The sign reads, “Gründlich – sachlich – kritisch – für Berlin", or Thorough – Factual – Critical – For Berlin. Behind it is the construction site where the Waldorf-Astoria hotel now stands.
Or take Berlin’s main train station. It can be admired in all its unobstructed glory in a picture from October 2009. Its only neighbors are plots of fenced-off land that are now major hotels.
On to Alexanderplatz, the public square at the heart of the former East Berlin. Although the Alexa shopping centre is already there, another retail building, whose design was opposed by Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit, is still a construction site.
At the foot of the famous television tower, the sun shines pleasantly on a park that has long since given way to an office building. And on nearby Schlossplatz stand the truncated remains of the Palace of the Republic, the former seat of the East German parliament, which is still fondly remembered by locals for its cultural attractions.
Navigating along the River Spree you come across the practically unchanged East Side Gallery, an international memorial for freedom on the site of a 1.3 km-long section of the Berlin Wall.
Perhaps the most drastic changes are in the government quarter, where the half-timbered Paris-Moskau restaurant, one of the few buildings to survive the fierce battle for the nearby Reichstag parliament in 1945, stands alone in a green oasis. Today it has been practically eaten up by the Ministry of the Interior building.
To get a good sense of the government's thirst for expansion, go back across the Spree to Luisenstrasse and take in the airy gaps between the blocks facing the Spree. These are now filled with ministry buildings. The area has completely changed in the past five years.
This article first appeared in the newspaper Der Tagesspiegel. To contact the author: [email protected]