Google has begun photographing streets in European cities in preparation for the launch of its Street View feature on Google Earth this side of the Atlantic.
Cars with the Google logo, carrying what looks like sophisticated laser-scanning photographic equipment on their roofs, have been spotted on the streets of Milan and Rome in Italy, according to a blog posting that includes close-up photos of a car.
The feature has sparked some controversy in the US, where Street View is already available for several cities, including San Francisco. The photographic images of the streets often include pedestrians on sidewalks or in cafes, and car license-plate numbers are clearly visible.
The feature is likely to draw even more criticism in Europe, where privacy rules are tighter than in the US For this reason Google is treading carefully.
"We want to launch in Europe when we have figured a way to respect local laws while maintaining functionality," Jon Steinback, the company's policy communications manager, said in an interview.
"We've always said that Street View will respect local laws wherever it is available and we recognize that other countries strike a different balance between the concept of 'public spaces' and individuals' right to privacy in those public spaces," said Google's global privacy counsel, Peter Fleischer, in a blog posting.
"In other parts of the world local laws and customs are more protective of individuals' right to privacy in public spaces, and therefore they have a more limited concept of the right to take and publish photographs of people in public places," he added.
The rules on rights to privacy in a public place vary across the European Union. The European Convention on Human Rights, which is upheld in most EU countries, demands some protection of individuals' privacy, but it is interpreted differently by different countries.
In the US, Google will remove images of people if they ask it to do so. However, this retroactive action isn't likely to satisfy Europe's data-protection authorities.
For this reason, Google is considering installing blurring technology that would make distinguishing features such as faces and number plates unrecognizable. "We would only consider such action if the process of blurring could be automated," Steinback said.
One alternative would be to reduce the resolution of the whole image to protect people's privacy, Steinback said.
Europe's top data-protection officials weren't immediately available to comment on the privacy implications of Street View.
Google wasn't able to say exactly which European cities are being targeted initially, nor whether it has discussed its plans for Street View with EU authorities.