New Internet-based technology could soon turn regular computer users into armchair spies, a Canadian inventor said on Monday.

Vincent Tao, an engineer at Toronto’s York University said he has invented a mapping and surveillance tool called SAME (see anywhere, map anywhere), that produces images so sharp that geographic co-ordinates typed into a Web site can reveal the make of a car parked on the street.

Tao said SAME works by taking satellite images of the Earth and combining them with real-time remote sensors that monitor traffic and weather.

The information is reformatted on a searchable Web site that can capture ground-level images of the Earth with little or no time delay.

The resolution is 60 cm (2 feet) — fine enough to determine the make of a car, though not the details of a human face, according to Tao.

“This is real-time streaming technology. It’s like (the online directory) MapQuest or the navigation system in your car, but three-dimensional,” he said in an interview on Monday.

“You’ll see a globe, like a virtual Earth, and then you can fly in from outer space and zoom all the way in to a city and even to street level, which will be updated by very nice, high-resolution imagery.”

Tao said the potential applications are broad, including defense, emergency response and environmental monitoring. He added that the technology could become widely available as early as next year.

“Our business model is looking at how to make this publicly available.”

But the technology also poses concerns, said Veera Rastogi, a lawyer specializing in privacy issues with the Canadian law firm Blake, Cassels & Graydon LLP.

“Any surveillance-based technology like this gives rise to the potential for abuse,” she said.

“Right now it’s a tool used by the Red Cross and defense, but, down the road, in whose hands would this technology fall and for what purpose? Bottom line is, it’s a case where, these days, the technology seems to be outrunning the law,” Rastogi said.

Cindy Cowan, the director of a Toronto shelter for battered women, echoed Rastogi’s concerns, saying the technology could put women at greater risk of abuse.

“Already the Internet has become a place where women are stalked, so to give another tool to abusive men motivated to find and track and stalk — it frightens me,” she said.

More here.