Swiss Contend Google Doesn't Blur Street View Enough

Switzerland's data protection authority said Friday it will sue Google for allegedly failing to obscure faces, license plates and other sensitive images from its Street View photo mapping Web application.

It's the latest problem for Street View, which debuted to controversy in the U.K. and raised concerns when vehicles mounted with periscope cameras began shooting imagery in Germany earlier this year.

The Federal Data Protection and Information Commissioner (FDPIC), Hanspeter Thuer, had initially given Google the green light for Street View. However, the agency came back to Google shortly after its August launch with its concerns, and now plans to take the company to the country's Federal Administrative Court.

Google was warned on Sept. 11 that it should take more steps to protect people's privacy but failed to comply with most of the recommendations, according to a statement by the FDPIC.

"In the Street View service, which has been online since mid August 2009, numerous faces and vehicle number plates are not made sufficiently unrecognizable from the point of view of data protection, especially where the persons concerned are shown in sensitive locations, e.g. outside hospitals, prisons or schools," the agency said.

Google struck back, charging that Thuer is "unwilling to engage with the extensive solutions we have offered," according to a statement attributed to Peter Fleischer, Google's global privacy counsel.

"We met with the DPA before and after the launch, explaining our technology and, where requested, proposing steps that would reinforce Street View's privacy-protection technology and assuage any concerns," Fleischer said.

The FDPIC contends that blurring faces isn't sufficient to conceal identities, especially in less populated areas. The height of the cameras is also problematic, as it can snap images over fences, hedges and walls, which means the cameras have access to areas that can't be seen by a pedestrian, the FDPIC contends.

"This means that privacy in enclosed areas (gardens, yards) is no longer guaranteed," the agency said.

Google said it will not lower the height of the cameras on its vehicles in Switzerland. Google used this method in Japan, but it was done there to preserve image quality since the streets are more narrow and houses are closer together, according to a Google spokeswoman.

If the cameras are lowered, it poses other problems since the cameras are then closer to people's faces. "It's a delicate balance," she said.

Google uses software that can pick out faces and license plates and automatically blur them. The company said it is continually improving that technology as well as adapting it for Swiss license plates, which are smaller compared to other countries.

People can also report offensive Street View images to Google, which will remove the images. Google will also black out images of people's homes when requested.

The company said it's willing to consult with other "interested groups such as abortion clinics and women's refuges to hear their feedback and to answer any questions."

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