EU raises privacy issue for Google Street View

The EU's data protection supervisor has urged Google to respect privacy rules as it prepares to unveil Street View in Europe.

Europe's data protection supervisor, Peter Hustinx, urged Google Thursday to respect local privacy rules as it prepares to launch its Street View function this side of the Atlantic.

Although he hasn't been in direct contact with the Internet search giant about Street View, Hustinx is very aware of it.

"Street View is only available in the US still, but I understand that it will work differently when it's launched in Canada, so there is a capacity to deploy the service in different ways to suit different privacy laws," Hustinx said in a press conference, adding: "I'd encourage Google to work closely with European data-protection authorities too."

"Taking pictures on a street isn't in itself a problem but taking pictures anywhere can be. We have sent a very strong message to Google and other Internet search companies in our report on search engines about complying with European privacy laws," he said.

"The same applies here. Respecting data-protection laws is central to Google's business. Success or failure for them in Europe will depend on them respecting the laws. They are smart, I'm confident they won't ignore the laws," Hustinx added.

Last month, cars daubed with the Google logo, carrying what looked like sophisticated laser scanning photographic equipment on their roofs were spotted on the streets of Milan and Rome in Italy.

Earlier this month, similar vehicles were seen in some French cities too.

Google's global privacy counsel, Peter Fleischer, wrote in a blog that the company will respect local laws as it rolls out the Street View service in countries outside the US.

"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 wrote

The feature has already sparked some controversy in the US, where Street View is 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.

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," Google's policy communications manager, Jon Steinback, said in a phone interview last month.

One alternative would be to reduce the resolution of the whole image to protect people's privacy, Steinback said, but this would compromise the quality of images for everyone and is seen as a last resort to placate local privacy authorities.

Speaking on the sidelines of a press conference to unveil his annual report on data protection in the EU, Hustinx said that broadly, Google does take European data protection seriously. "I am encouraged, but compliance with our rules remains a challenge for Google and requires a commitment from the company," he said.

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