Social networking site stirs up controversy with planned school photos | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 05.10.2010
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Social networking site stirs up controversy with planned school photos

A German website set up to put former classmates back in touch has been making waves with reports that it is photographing thousands of schools without first asking permission. said it will shows photos of schools said it will shows photos of schools

A German website,, confirmed over the weekend that it would be photographing schools across Germany. Just as is the case with Google, this site has drawn similar public scrutiny.

In recent months, Google Street View has drawn a lot of public ire in Germany over potential privacy violations. To comply with German sensitivity, the California company has allowed - unlike every other country where the service is available - German residents to opt-out and have their home blurred when it launches in Germany later this year.

Like its American sister company, 'Classmates Online' or the UK's 'Friends Reunited,' the German website helps one-time school friends reconnect and stay in contact. In order to make the experience as much a visual as a written one, the company says, it has hired photographers to snap some 20,000 schools across Germany.

But did not seek permission from the individual schools concerned before starting shooting, a move which drew criticism from Ulf Roedde, spokesman for the German Education Union (GEW).

In an article with Der Spiegel magazine over the weekend, he said that if wants to be reputable and to co-operate with the schools, its chosen approach is "questionable." spokespersdon Daniel Haidn says the company does not have to ask permission spokespersdon Daniel Haidn says the company does not have to ask permission

Daniel Haidn,'s spokesperson, told Deutsche Welle that the company had not considered it necessary to contact the principals of each establishment they are planning to photograph.

"We don't have to ask for permission," he said. "But if a school or a local authority has a problem, they can come to us."

At such point, he says his company would try and make them see that the photographs can also serve as good publicity for the schools in question. The publicity is attracting for itself in the process, however, is less good.

Bad reputation

Der Spiegel also reported that recently at a school in Muenster a teacher approached a photographer on commission from and asked him what he was doing. The teacher later went on record saying he had been threatened with violence for his inquiry, a claim Haidn said the photographer denies. has since apologized, but the incident has increased both awareness and concern toward the project, which is due to go online sometime later this year. The company spokesman told Deutsche Welle that the site was not looking for the media attention it now has, but sees it as an opportunity to tell worried parties what the photography scheme is all about.

Haidn says there's a simple reason why his company would want to photograph so many schools for the site.

"In Germany we have the problem that there are many schools of the same name," he said.

"So we have isolated the 20,000 most popular ones and are taking pictures of the facades and other special architectural elements, such as particularly attractive yards or gates, to make it easier for users to recognize them."

A German law professor said that there are no real reasons to forbid the school photos

A German law professor said that there are "no real reasons to forbid" the school photos

'No real reason' to forbid it, expert says

But as is almost inevitable in the great digital age that spawned the controversial likes of Google Street View, there is a portion of the public preoccupied with issues of data protection.

That though, Wolfgang Loewer, a law professor at the University of Bonn told Deutsche Welle said that data protection is not a very substantial issue in the case of

"It does fall into the realm of data protection, but there are no real reasons to forbid it," he said.

Haidn added the company has been very careful not to include any images of people or private property.

"The photographers have to take the pictures when there are the minimal number of people around, so either afternoons or at weekends," he said. "If a license plate or a person is in the frame, we either cut them out or blur them, and we do it manually not like Google with Street View."

Another difference between the two projects is that schools are public and not private buildings.

"Anyone can walk past them and see them anyway," Loewer said, adding that as they belong to local communities, the only body that could try and stop the pictures being published online would be those local communities.

But Haidn says is not expecting that to happen.

"It's not as if a school façade is a military secret," he said.

Author: Tamsin Walker
Editor: Cyrus Farivar

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