Cassidy: Google Maps display of Kevin Barrera’s body a reminder that privacy …

How in the world can one of the smartest companies on the planet end up posting a satellite photograph of a slain teenager lying dead in a dusty lot next to a railroad spur in Richmond?

It makes you want to scream at Google (GOOG): What were you thinking? It makes you want to wrap Kevin Barrera’s grieving family in your arms and hold them tight until the convulsions and sobbing stop. It makes you want to change the way you look at the wonderful digital world; a world where everyone knows everything right away; a world where there are no secrets and where our most private moments no longer belong just to us.

When you look at the Google Maps image taken from outer space, it makes you want to do all those things. He’s right there: A boy gunned down four years ago by someone or someones that the police still haven’t found. He’s a son, a brother, a friend, a kid, on the ground, apparently wearing dark pants and a light-colored shirt. Dead.

But you have to stop and think; think about the world we live in. And when you stop for a minute, you realize that Jose Barrera, Kevin’s father, is right to be furious with Google. And you realize that Google is right in moving as quickly as it can to replace the image with an updated one that does not desecrate the scene of a young man’s death.

And you realize we are all right to wonder whether the unconditional surrender of our privacy should be the price we pay for once-unimagined connectivity.

The lives of Barrera, his wife and his 26-year-old stepdaughter were shattered on Aug. 14, 2009, when 14-year-old Kevin was shot while walking along a path near the railroad tracks that bisect Richmond and San Pablo. He was the 33rd of 47 people to be murdered in Richmond that year, according police Sgt. Nicole Abetkov.

You can imagine the pain, the daily reminders of the boy who didn’t live to be a man. And the questions: Who shot Kevin? Why? What were his last words? His last thoughts? You can imagine the daily reminders of the boy he once was.

And then last week came the cruelest reminder of all: A local TV station pointed out to Jose Barrera that the image of his slain son was available on Google Maps.

“All the memories are coming back to four years ago,” Barrera told this newspaper.

The raw pain of a father puts into a fresh light the steady parade of unintended consequences that the digital revolution has brought about. Between Facebook bullying, NSA snooping and data security breaches that have transformed the lives of many into open books, we’re constantly reminded of how little control we have over what was once uniquely ours.

We’re not going back, no matter how many times the digital revolution blows up in our faces. The technological advances are far too profitable for those who are advancing them and far too convenient for those who are using them.

All of which means the companies that control vast warehouses of personal information must do the right thing when the unexpected happens. No question Google regrets what happened. When the company heard about the image of Kevin Barrera, it immediately apologized and started the process to remove the photo of Barrera’s corpse and replace it with an updated image.

“Our hearts go out to the family of this young boy,” Brian McClendon, vice president of Google Maps, said in a written statement. “We believe we can update this in eight days, and we’ve spoken to the family to let them know we’re working hard on the update.”

Google didn’t respond to my questions about why it takes eight days to update the image and whether any new procedures have been put in place to avoid any similar images appearing in the future.

Jose Barrera told this newspaper that Google’s apology doesn’t go far enough without some changes in the way it does business. And he said he hopes that the new and painful notoriety the case is attracting might move the stalled case forward.

“Maybe the publicity that it’s gotten, that might kind of jog somebody’s memory and make them come forward,” Abetkov says. “So far nobody has.”

It’s an unfortunate fact of a town struggling with violence that sometimes the 33rd murder blends into the 34th and the 47th; and except for those closest to the victim the particulars become hard to sort out, one to the next. We can all hope that as horrible as it is, the Google Maps revelation will shake something loose for Kevin Barrera.

Contact Mike Cassidy at or 408-920-5536. Follow him at

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