Europe Pushes Google Over Street View Data

The European Union has called for Google to provide people advance notice when its Street View vehicles are roving European streets to take pictures and asked that these images be deleted after six months.

Google responded that its current retention period of one year is necessary to maintain the quality of the Street View service, an add-on feature to Google Maps that provides street-level views of 100-plus cities all over the world.

For Street View, Google deploys cars, tricycles and bicycles fitted with cameras to snap photos of urban streets. These pictures often include people, though Google employs special technology to blur faces and license plates in the pictures it captures. Some countries have not taken kindly to the service because they believe it invades their privacy.

Switzerland is suing Google over Street View, calling for Google to erase images of walled gardens and private streets. In April 2009, a group of British villagers formed a human chain to turn away a car shooting images for Street View. Google last August refreshed its Street View Website, creating a sort of tutorial to show users how the tool works.

Now the EU’s Article 29 Data Protection Working Party is cracking down on Google’s Street View practices. In a 11 Feb. letter to Google obtained by eWEEK, the party’s head Alex Turk called for Google to let citizens know, through its Website and public national, regional and local announcements, when its Street View vehicles will be roaming streets to take pictures for Google’s Maps database.

Turk further urged Google to avoid taking pictures of a “sensitive nature,” including “intimate details not normally observable by a passer-by.”

However, Turk dismissed Google’s argument that it needs to retain unblurred images for one year because its blurring software accidentally blots out sign posts, statues or street names in images and Google wants to hold onto them to improve its software.

“When benchmarking Street View immediately after it was launched in new locations, the Working Party observed that the number of false positives remains very low,” Turk wrote, adding that Google’s improvements to its blurring technology may be attributed to the low number of false positives.

Calling Google’s retention period “disproportionate,” Turk said a “maximum retention of 6 months for the unblurred copies of the images would strike the right balance between the protection of privacy and the ability to eliminate false positives.”

Google Global Privacy Counselor Peter Fleischer indicated the company is not budging from its stance, which Fleischer outlined in detail here in this October 2009 blog post. Fleischer reiterated those reasons in a statement sent to eWEEK.

“The need to retain the unblurred images is legitimate and justified—to ensure the quality and accuracy of our maps, to improve our ability to rectify mistakes in blurring, as well as to use the data we have collected to build better maps products for our users. We have publicly committed to a retention period of 12 months from the date on which images are published on Street View, and this is the period which we will continue to meet globally.”

Google has endured a difficult start to 2010. Three executives, including Fleischer, were convicted of privacy violations by an Italian court.

Three Web companies complained to the European Union about Google’s competition practices. In January, Google revealed that its servers had been hacked and threatened to pull out of China entirely because of it.

Clint Boulton eWEEK USA 2012. Ziff Davis Enterprise Inc. All Rights Reserved

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Clint Boulton eWEEK USA 2012. Ziff Davis Enterprise Inc. All Rights Reserved

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