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Street views

October 12, 2010

Google plans to launch its Street View project in Germany's 20 biggest cities by the end of the year. But not all Germans are happy that their homes, cars and even themselves could be online for all to see.

The last day for Germans to opt-out is October 15
The last day for Germans to opt-out is October 15Image: picture alliance/dpa

Some 1 million Germans make use of the Street View service daily for a virtual ground's eye look of the world, according to Google. But the company has been heavily criticized in Germany as it gets ready to put maps of German cities online, which the company plans to do by the end of the year.

Much of that criticism has come from the southern German state of Bavaria, and the region around the city of Ingolstadt in particular.

"The problem with Google Street View is that Google - without asking - has gone and photographed German houses and streets and people do not know how the information is used," Georg Schaeff, the publisher of the Ingolstadt-based daily Donaukurier, told Deutsche Welle. The newspaper has publicized local opposition to the service for the last two years.

That's a problem in Germany since the country's highest court has affirmed citizens' rights to control who has their personal information and how it's used.

Google gives ground

"We take privacy very seriously," said Lena Wagner, a Google Germany spokesperson, in an e-mail sent to Deutsche Welle. "While the Street View feature enables people to easily find, discover, and plan activities relevant to a location, we respect the fact that people may not want certain types of images featured on the service."

The California tech giant has made concessions to German privacy advocates by allowing material to be made unrecognizable before being published, which it hasn't done in the other 23 countries Street View is online. Furthermore, after facing widespread criticism, it doubled the opt-out period to eight weeks, which ends on Friday.

Some 200,000 people have taken Google up on the offer to have their homes or apartment building blurred, according to a report in the German news magazine Der Spiegel. Google, which automatically blurs the faces and vehicle license plates its computer can recognize and asks users to point out the ones it misses, has not commented on the number of opt-out it has received.

A photographer holds camera to a person holding up both hands signaling no with the Google Street View logo in the background
Some 200,000 people have removed themselves from Street View, a German magazine reportedImage: picture alliance / dpa

But Schaeff said people have no way of making sure what they see as a violation of their privacy really gets deleted. He added that citizens have little recourse if Google doesn't agree with their claim of a privacy infringement by the panoramic photos of whatever is visible from the street taken by the eight cameras mounted on the company's car.

"Individual citizens can't assert themselves against these kinds of companies," he said. "And the corporations don't bother to consider if what they are doing is illegal or not. Google works on the premise of 'Why ask for permission when you can beg for forgiveness after the fact?'"

Privacy rift

But privacy advocates still have a lot of convincing to do. Some 41 percent of Germans see more positive than negative aspects to Street View and 16 percent say they have or will remove their homes from the service, according to an August study by the Emnid Research Institute.

Many Ingolstadt locals agreed with the poll's sentiment.

"Google can go ahead and do it, because everyone leaves their tracks all over the Internet and everywhere else," said Ingo Zingel, an Ingolstadt resident. "Whether someone takes a picture of the door to my house really doesn't matter."

Schaeff said he's not surprised that some people don't seem concerned about what's happening to their personal information.

"I think there is a rift in society where half the people don't see a problem and don't know what's coming down the road," he said. "The other half is much more sensitive and is more careful because the situation is far from clear."

What's unclear, he added, is how images from Street View - or any other type of geodata, such as that collected by mobile phone providers - can be used to create profiles of individuals that are later sold to third parties. Without knowing how personal data will be used, he said people should give out as little as possible.

"Each piece of personal information is like a stone that creates a mosaic," Schaeff said. "Every little stone plays a meaningful role, but, unfortunately, you can't tell what the role is until the whole picture has been made."

'Sensible areas'

An August survey revealed that 41 percent of those polled think that Street View has more positive than negative aspects
About 41 percent Germans said Street View has more positive than negative aspectsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

But there are some pictures Thomas Herker, the mayor of Pfaffenhofen, just south of Ingolstadt, said he knows he doesn't want made. While he insisted that city hall and pubic offices be visible in Street View, he added that some public buildings should be unrecognizable on the Internet.

"We requested that Google remove public kindergartens and schools," he said referring to a letter the city sent in December 2009 to Google's German headquarters in Hamburg. "Two weeks ago we were told they would not do it because only private individuals - not municipalities - have a right to remove property."

Herker led a group of Bavarian mayors which sent another request to Google asking for the company to respect their wishes and remove kindergartens and other "sensible areas" from Street View.

While Herker is left hoping Google accounts for his city's wishes, the point may become moot if the service goes online as planned by the end of the year. The last time Herker wrote to Google it took 10 months to get a form letter response. If it takes that long again the pictures will have long been online for all to see.

"There are three companies in Germany that, in my opinion, are problematic: Deutsche Telekom, Deutsche Bahn, and now I've added Google to the list," he said. "I can only hope that Google will change its mind and make it possible to remove public property from the service."

Author: Sean Sinico
Editor: Cyrus Farivar