Google U.K. Street View Runs Into Privacy Issues

The company over the weekend found itself denying that it had published Street View images depicting naked children.

Thomas Claburn, Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

March 23, 2009

4 Min Read

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

Google, with its vast digital memory, would seem to be the ideal candidate to break the cycle of repetition. But when it comes to privacy, Google keeps coming back to defend itself.

Following the introduction of Google Maps Street View in the United Kingdom last Thursday, the company over the weekend found itself denying that it had published Street View images depicting naked children.

This came just after Google insisted that rather than allowing burglars to find homes to burgle more easily, Street View actually helps the police solve crimes.

British Information Commission head Richard Thomas, who runs the agency responsible for regulating and enforcing access to and use of personal information, is reportedly considering an investigation into Google's privacy practices, if further images of naked children turn up in Google's U.K. Street View service.

This would be the same Information Commission that, according to a Google blog post on Friday, said, "We are satisfied that Google is putting in place adequate safeguards to avoid any risk to the privacy or safety of individuals, including the blurring of vehicle registration marks and the faces of anyone included in Street View images."

There's some irony here, given the extent of CCTV camera coverage of the United Kingdom, but let's stick to Google. Google insists that the article by the Independent on Sunday -- which said Google had removed hundreds of images from its U.K. Street View database, including pictures depicting a naked child, people leaving sex shops, and people vomiting on the street -- was flawed and that the paper had committed to a correction.

"The photographs in this case were not revealing," said D-J Collins, Google's director of communication and public affairs for Europe, Middle East, and Africa, in a blog post. "They showed a typical family picnic in a public park on a summer's day, with children playing."

Collins stresses that the Street View images were taken last year and that the child in question, while visible at the highest zoom level, was blurred because of the low resolution, was not facing the camera, and could not be identified.

"Nevertheless, we take issues around inappropriate content in our products very seriously, and we removed the images within an hour of being notified," Collins' post continues. "For us, privacy and user choice remain paramount."

By choice, Google means the onus is upon those photographed to ask to be removed from Google's Street View image database, just as those whose copyrights have been violated on YouTube must ask to have infringing videos removed.

Google is also on the defensive in Italy, where four Google executives, including the company's global privacy counsel, are on trial for violating Italy's privacy law for a video posted to Google Video.

The judge in that case last week rejected an attempt by Google's legal representatives to challenge the plaintiff's standing. Later this week, the judge will review whether his court has jurisdiction. And Google continues to face privacy complaints about services like its new Latitude location-sharing service for mobile devices, for Street View elsewhere in the world, for Google Earth imagery, and just about everything else it does.

Such criticism appears to have prompted Google, in announcing the commencement of behavior-based ad targeting, to describe its technology as "interest-based advertising."

Many of those writing blog posts about the announcement preferred terms more suggestive of privacy invasion, such as "behavioral advertising" and "behavioral targeting," in their description of Google's announcement.

Google's Street View in the United Kingdom is likely to survive -- it is, after all, really useful. Nonetheless, Google faces a long siege. It will have to continue to adjust, accommodate, and probably apologize as it rolls out new services. If it succeeds in maintaining most of the public's confidence and trust, it may help most people accept that privacy has become something one opts into. But plenty of Google's foes see privacy as the collar to which a leash can be attached.

Consider the tweet that came from Privacy International's Twitter account Friday: "Amazed how many complaints we are getting about Google's Street View. We used to get hate mail; we are now overloaded with requests for help."

If you listen, you can almost hear someone crying, "Save us! Oh, save us from Google!" But you have to listen hard to hear that above clattering keystrokes of Google users who aren't really bothered by all the fuss about privacy.

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About the Author(s)

Thomas Claburn

Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful master's degree in film production. He wrote the original treatment for 3DO's Killing Time, a short story that appeared in On Spec, and the screenplay for an independent film called The Hanged Man, which he would later direct. He's the author of a science fiction novel, Reflecting Fires, and a sadly neglected blog, Lot 49. His iPhone game, Blocfall, is available through the iTunes App Store. His wife is a talented jazz singer; he does not sing, which is for the best.

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