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Google Agrees to Delete Unblurred German Street View Data

Google has agreed to delete some of the original, unblurred photographs captured by its German Street View service, ceding to demands by Hamburg's Data Protection Office.

And in a departure from its policy in other countries, it will delete images of peoples' homes in advance of publication if asked. Elsewhere, it only removes images if it receives a complaint after they have been published.

Street View is a component of Google Maps, which displays street-level photographs captured by a fleet of cars in the months prior to the service's launch. Although the images only show what anyone walking down the street at that moment could have seen, the fact that the images are permanently stored and widely distributed has raised privacy concerns.

Google runs European Street View images through an automated filter to locate personally identifiable image features such as faces and car registration plates, publication of which could breach local privacy laws. It then renders those features unrecognizable by blurring them before publication so as to protect the privacy of those caught on camera. The process is not perfect, but if someone subsequently found their face or number plate unblurred on Street View, they can request that Google remove or blur the publicly displayed image.

Now, under pressure from the Data Protection Agency for Hamburg, Google has agreed to delete the original, unblurred images from its internal database within two months of receiving a request. Google usually retains the raw images indefinitely, something it says helps it improve its algorithms for automatically identifying image features.

"We have agreed to meet the privacy safeguards they have requested," said a Google spokeswoman.

The Data Protection Agency had hoped that Google would delete all raw images, not just the ones subject to a request, but is happy with the compromise, agency head Johannes Caspar said in a statement late Wednesday.

Google has also agreed to develop an online tool allowing German users to request that images of their home not be published.

"The tool is still in the early stages of development, but we'll make sure we give users plenty of time to use it before we launch," the Google spokeswoman said in an e-mail.

In that case, Google will only retain the unblurred images until Street View is launched in Germany.

Last week, Google outlined its views on image data retention in its European public policy blog.

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