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Internet giant Google said Tuesday it aimed to launch its Street View application in Germany by the end of the year. Yet Berlin insists there are concerns that the technology could breach privacy laws.
Google says Street View offers a unique new experience
Google, which wants to extend its Street View panoramic photos to Germany later this year, has rejected strong privacy objections raised by the German government. Consumer Affairs Minister Ilse Aigner is demanding that the Internet giant only displays its imagery after each affected German citizen has given his or her permission.
Minister Aigner said her staff were consulting with justice ministry officials, with the aim of tightening legislation. She also demanded that Google be ready to make people's faces, car and house numbers, and even facades unrecognizable.
"A vague picture pixel change is not sufficient," she said in Berlin. "I do not share the company's assessment that all personal data concerns have been resolved." Her ministry, she said, had been flooded with calls by citizens worried about protecting their privacy.
A stroll in the Internet, but is data privacy safeguarded?
The head of Google's legal department, Arnd Haller said "we take personal data privacy very seriously. We've been discussing privacy issues all over Europe, but here in Germany the intensity of the questions is really impressive."
A consultant hired by Google, Nikolas Forgo, who is a Hanover professor on informatics law, said a violation of personal rights was improbable. Google has already pledged to disguise car number plates and peoples' faces.
Berlin says Google needs individual permission
Aigner had recently accused Google's service of being on the verge of violating the privacy of millions of citizens, each individually. She demanded that Google seek the permission from each person photographed on streets prior to publication.
Street View photos are taken by camera cars which can capture all-round 360-degrees images. These enable Google users to simulate a stroll while sitting at their computers. Google has been gathering images of streets and public spaces in Germany since 2008.
The online service began in 2007 in four cities in the United States. Australia and Japan soon followed. In total Google has initiated similar imaging projects in 19 countries, including many in Europe. Satellites help pinpoint the panoramic scenes on maps using geo-data systems.
In a special exception for Germany, Haller said individuals would be able to file an objection with Google to seek the removal of recognizable features. "We've a web site on-line with the relevant names and places where Google street views are taken. We also allow users to opt out in advance."
Street View is already available in several European countries
"An immersive experience"
Google software developer Raphael Leiteritz said he believed Street View was worth fighting for:
"Cards and maps have been two-dimensional for many years. Street View for the first time gives you an immersive experience. You don't look on a city from the top. You can visit it and you can look around."
That does not impress Aigner. She is demanding that Google's panoramic cameras be mounted no higher than 1.8 meters – instead of the current 2.5 meters on camera cars – so that views over fences and walls into residents' gardens and courtyards are blocked.
Other data privacy advocates also point out that potential burglars can use such Internet imagery to recognize and target properties.
Aigner told German public radio that Google must act "definitively" on objections lodged by citizens, even to the point of making a building unrecognizable. Her ministry, she added, had placed a standardized complaint form on its website.
Editor: Andreas Illmer