Google Street View Panned By Japanese Privacy Group

Such concerns have arisen more from the data Google gathers through its search engine.
A Japanese privacy group has asked Google to stop making pictures of public streets in Japan available through its Google Maps Street View service.

The Campaign Against Surveillance Society, a Japanese group composed mainly of academics and lawyers, has urged Google Japan to take Street View offline and to delete all captured images, according to Reuters.

The group is headed by Yasuhiko Tajima, a law professor at Tokyo's Sophia University. In a telephone interview with Reuters, he said, "We strongly suspect that what Google has been doing deeply violates a basic right that humans have."

A Google spokesperson couldn't immediately confirm the Reuters report. Instead, she pointed to Google's Street View privacy page and said in an e-mail, "Google takes privacy very seriously, and Street View respects privacy in each country where it is launched."

"Google takes privacy very seriously" is a phrase Google repeats frequently.

That stated commitment, however, appears to be increasingly in doubt, at least to those surveyed recently by the Ponemon Institute and TRUSTe.

In the group's annual "Most Trusted Companies For Privacy" survey, released Monday, Google was no longer ranked among the top 20 companies deemed to have the most respect for privacy. In 2006 and 2007, Google ranked 10.

The extent of Google's commitment to privacy came into question over the summer when the company resisted calls from privacy groups in California to add a privacy link on its home page, as required by law.

But such concerns have arisen more from the data Google gathers through its search engine. That's why Microsoft and Yahoo, sensing a competitive advantage, are offering to retain search data for shorter periods of time than Google.

Google's position about taking photographs of public places, however, has been mostly respectful, apart from some alleged trespassing on private property and military bases.

"Street View only features photographs taken on public property, and the imagery is no different from what a person can readily see or capture walking down the street," the company explains on its Web site. "Imagery of this kind is available in a wide variety of formats for cities all around the world. We are committed to respecting local laws and norms in each country in which we launch Street View."

The problem Google confronts is that its ambition to organize all the world's information and make it universally accessible changes the privacy implications of that information. A single picture that invades a person's privacy, posted somewhere online, isn't like to be a major social issue. But aggregated together on Google, in conjunction with search tools and other online services, all the world's information is too much for some.

Privacy through obscurity used to be a fact of life. Today, a click or a search may reveal everything.