Google Faces U.K. Privacy Fight Over Street View

Armen Hareyan's picture

As Google prepares to launch Street View in the U.K., and has already launched it in France, concerns over privacy have been raised by the group Privacy International, which says it feels Street View violates privacy laws.

You'll recall that Canada, which has very strong privacy protections in place (for example, a study has said that DRM violates privacy law), has already raised such concerns.

"In our view they need a person's consent if they make use of a person's face for commercial ends," said Simon Davis, Director of the group.

Davis has also written a letter to Google, given them seven days to respond to his request for technical information on the "blurring" technology, or else he will file a complaint with the U.K. Information Commissioner.

Text of the letter is as follows:

2nd July 2008

Jane Horvath,
Senior privacy counsel,
Mountain View, CA

Dear Jane,

Recent media reports in Europe have mentioned that Google has begun deployment of its StreetView system in the UK and elsewhere in the EU. You may be aware that Privacy International has stated, both privately to Google legal staff and to the media, that we are concerned about a number of potential violations of national law that this technology may create.

In response, Google has informed the media that it will institute "face blurring" technology to ensure legal compliance. However, when we requested information from Google six weeks ago about the specifications for this technology your colleagues admitted that there were problems with it at an engineering level.

We are concerned that claims of protection are being made that may not be possible to institute. I am writing to request full disclosure of the technology specifications for the promised face and number plate blurring system so that the public can be assured that Google has taken every step necessary to satisfy not just legal requirements, but that it is also fulfilling its stated commitments.

We have in the past raised concerns directly with Google that such claims have historically failed to materialise. I recall the promise made by Google to the FTC during the Doubleclick acquisition that "crumbling cookies" would be developed. We have seen no evidence that this technology has been deployed. In response to concerns expressed at the time of our 2007 Internet privacy rankings, Google also promised a "privacy dashboard" to help consumers understand the functionality of their user settings. This technology has not appeared.

You will know that we have often complained that Google performs poorly on the issue of transparency. I believe this is one occasion where disclosure is crucial. Public trust in Google will suffer if there is a perception that the company is manipulating the facts.

I ask that you respond with this technical information within seven days. I also ask that you inform us of the steps, if any, that you have taken to consult the public over the use of their images for what is, in effect, a commercial purpose.

If we do not receive a satisfactory answer within that period we will have no choice but to lodge a complaint with the UK Information Commissioner with a request that StreetView deployment be suspended pending a formal investigation.

Yours sincerely,

Simon Davies
Privacy International
So, is this all overblown? P.I. has battled Google over privacy concerns in the past, including issues with Gmail, even naming the company among the worst for privacy practices.

For its part, Google has taken steps in the past, such as the facial- and license-plate blurring technology it has added to Street View, as well as the link you can use to tell Google if you think an image infringes on your privacy, and the privacy link they just added to their home page.

Still, no one can deny that the amount of data Google stores is monolithic, and things like Viacom being able to sift through all YouTube user data isn't exactly comforting. We'll see where this goes.

Source: Reported by Tech Ex

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