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8/24/2009
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Google Fights Street View Ban In Switzerland

The Swiss data commissioner worries that Google Maps Street View reveals too much and may force Google to blur or remove even more of its images.

Following Switzerland's acceptance of demands from U.S. tax authorities that Swiss banks provide less privacy to customers, the country's data protection agency has rejected Google Street View for failing to protect the privacy of Swiss citizens.

Hans-Peter Thur, Switzerland's federal data protection and information commissioner (FDPIC), issued a statement on Friday calling for Google to immediately remove the Street View feature in Google maps because it fails to sufficiently blur faces and license plates.

Street View became available in Switzerland less than a week ago.

The Swiss decision echoes Greece's refusal in May allow Google to collect Street View imagery until stronger privacy safeguards had been put in place.

Although Google has repeatedly had to defend itself against claims that its services intrude on personal privacy, the company said that it hadn't expected to be asked to suspend the service.

"We were surprised by the FDPIC's announcement," said a Google spokesperson via e-mail. "We have been engaged in constructive dialogue with the organization ahead of [last] week's launch to demonstrate how we protect people's privacy on Street View. And we're ready to do so again or to answer any additional questions."

Google representatives met with data protection officials on Monday to discuss how the service can be made compliant with Swiss law.

"We have had a good exchange of views and we look forward to any further discussions to demonstrate our industry leading tools to protect users' privacy," a Google spokesperson explained. "Since launching last week we have seen an 80% increase in maps usage, proving how popular this tool is with Swiss people."

At present, Street View -- accessed by dragging the yellow person icon onto a Google Maps page -- remains available for Swiss cities.

Google said that since the service launched last week, it has received very few requests to remove Street View images. And for those requests, the company said that its technology for blurring faces and license plates "has been working so effectively and that in most cases images have been removed within hours."

In Europe, where memories of World War II color privacy concerns with a different brush than in the U.S. and have led to more stringent privacy laws, Google has had a harder time getting people to accept Street View.

Following the launch of Street View in the U.K. earlier this year, a handful of residents of the Buckinghamshire village of Broughton formed a human chain to prevent a driver collecting Street View images from entering the town.

Google has also had to rebut claims in the U.K. that Street View aides thieves and pedophiles.

Reports that Street View aided authorities in the apprehension of two muggers in the Netherlands and in the location of a missing 9-year-old girl in Massachusetts have helped underscore the service's utility.

Street View has also met resistance in Japan. Google was asked to re-shoot Street View images in twelve Japanese cities using cameras positioned lower to the ground, to avoid photographing over the fences protecting people's yards.

In June, Google began taking its Street View cameras off-road. Using cameras mounted on tricycles -- a less sinister conveyance than a car for carrying a cyclopean camera -- the company has been mapping hiking and biking trails in California, Italy, and the U.K. Wildlife privacy advocates have yet to object.

InformationWeek has published an in-depth report on Google's upcoming Chrome OS. Download the report here (registration required).

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