German regulators welcome street panorama privacy law draft

A proposal to extend Germany's stringent privacy laws to cover street panoramas fulfills an urgent need, regulators say

German privacy regulators have welcomed a proposal to extend laws protecting Germans' right to privacy to cover use of their own image and that of their homes in online street panoramas, the Hamburg privacy regulator said Monday.

The draft law, to crack down on services such as Google's Street View or the Streetside function in Microsoft's Bing Maps, was submitted to the German Federal Parliament by the City of Hamburg in late April. Privacy regulators from Germany's Lände, or states, discussed the text at a meeting in Hamburg on Friday.

The initiative demonstrates "the urgent need for a comprehensive modernization of data protection," Hamburg's Commissioner for Data Protection and Freedom of Information Johannes Caspar said in statement.

Google is in hot water in Hamburg over the recording of unencrypted Wi-Fi traffic by the cars taking photos for Street View. The data recording was an accident, Google told the Hamburg regulator -- and privacy regulators in France, Spain and Italy, who are also investigating the case.

The Wi-Fi privacy mis-step came to light when the Hamburg's privacy regulator requested information from Google in an ongoing investigation into the imagery used in the Street View service. According to the regulator, German law requires Google to ask permission before publishing pictures of people and their property. Google's approach is generally to publish first, and then take down the images if someone complains, although in deference to the Hamburg regulator's concerns, the company has still not launched its Street View service in Germany.

The proposed German law would amend Germany's Federal Data Protection Act to make it illegal to publish databases of street images linked to their geographic coordinates without first blurring faces and car registration plates in the images. It would also make it illegal to store the raw, unblurred image data for more than a month after first publication.

Homeowners and tenants would have the right to ask, at any time, that images of themselves and their homes be blanked out.

Under the proposed law, companies that collect such images, including Microsoft and Google, would have to announce the areas in which their vehicles will be recording, a month in advance of their visit.

Failure to follow these rules would expose companies to a fine of up to €50,000 (US$62,000).

The draft law was assigned to parliamentary committees for further examination on May 7.

So far, such rules are the subject of a voluntary undertaking between German state authorities and the companies that take the photos. But voluntary undertakings are not reliable enough, Hamburg State Justice Senator Till Steffen said when the draft law was presented in April.

Google already publishes the schedule of its Street View cars in Germany, blurs faces and number plates detected by its software in published images (but has not yet agreed to discard the raw data), and agrees to remove images after publication if they are subject to dispute.

Microsoft has not yet launched its Streetside image service in Europe. So far it has only collected images of some U.S. metropolitan areas and of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games venues in Canada. The company says that it, too, uses software to detect and blur faces and car number plates. It will also, it says, accept requests to blur or remove images of faces, homes, cars, acts of violence, nudity, and unlawful material -- and will comply with the requirements of local laws.

Peter Sayer covers open source software, European intellectual property legislation and general technology breaking news for IDG News Service. Send comments and news tips to Peter at peter_sayer@idg.com.

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Peter Sayer

IDG News Service
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