The Google Street View technology has been highly controversial since its continuous expansion to other European countries that have far stricter laws than its country of origin, the United States. According to the Federal Commissioner for Data Protection and Freedom of Information in Germany (Düsseldorfer Kreis 2008) geospatial data showing faces of people and license plate, like Google Street View, could be regarded as problematic since it conveys a lot of information on personal affairs such as personal habits, preferences and circumstances of living. Google Street View is particularly criticized for having a “privileged view” on the object; according to Privacy International (2009), an international privacy organisation defending people’s right to privacy around the world, Google takes pictures at the height of 2.5m and not at an ordinary eye level, thus allowing a person to look inside an estate or home.
However, data protection officials argue that if the image is obscured or only presented in an abstract manner, an individual’s right to privacy is not violated (Düsseldorfer Kreis 2008). In opposition Düsseldorfers Kreis (2008) argument, I contend that Google Street View infringe on an individual’s privacy because it lacks consent from individuals who partake in the images, the software that Google Street View uses to spot and blur human faces and vehicle number plates is flawed, and there is no specified period of time the images are stored and its accessibility.
First and foremost, Google Street View does not ask for permission from every individual who happens to be pictured on the street. In February, 2010, Alex Turk, the head of the EU Data Protection Agency informed Google that it must give advance notice of where it intends to photograph on their website and local media (Segall, 16) . Furthermore, the Data Protection Act (1998) requires companies to notify people when collecting their personal data, in most cases notification would suffice and consent is not needed.
This means that taking one’s picture for a commercial use would require notification of who is taking the photo and why. However, the on-going debate of whether or not taking a photograph of a street, in which people happen to pass by, can be considered processing their personal data has not been resolved. There is also the question of how to best notify the public about where Google intends to photograph. Google posted notifications on their webpage stating where and when they would photograph but in order to abide the law, the company should find a more suitable way for their notifications to reach each and every individual in order for them to be aware that their pictures might be taken even without having the need to check the company’s website.
Secondly, Google Street View uses flawed automatic image processing software that detects people’s faces and vehicle plate numbers to blur or obscure these components (Siemoneit et al.). The head of the Swiss Data Protection Agency (DPA) found that Google’s blurring technology was insufficient across Switzerland; numerous faces and vehicle registration plates were inadequately blurred especially outside sensitive locations such as schools, hospitals or prisons (Segall, 18). Furthermore, obscuring the face of a person is not enough; many other individual characteristics like clothing, body shape, height or posture remain clear and identifiable. Google countered that Street View is legal and that new technology to allow for greater blurring of images will be implemented as soon as possible.
This however does not solve the problem of still being identifiable through body shape, height or clothing. A way to avoid people being identified on Street View is if the company replaces all images of real people with computer generated ones or if they completely remove the photos of people. Subsequently, this would affect the company’s economy and goal, Google would have to hire more image editors and buy new and more sufficient figure tracking software; moreover, erasing all the images of people would lessen the realism in the pictures that Google strives for.
Thirdly, Google does not specify any period of time the pictures are stored and its accessibility. The following information must be provided when information is collected about a person in accordance with Article 10 of the European Parliament’s Directive on Data Protection: the identity of the third party with the information, the purposes of the processing, and any further information such as the recipients of the data, the existence of a right to access, and the right to rectify the data (Segall, 16). Google Street View does not allow any access to their gathered pictures which is why if ever a person does want their picture removed, they would have to contact the company. Consequently, not many people would want to allot too much of their time and money asking for the company’s customer service to delete an image of them that was not supposed to be there in the first place.
The Data Protection Commissioner in Ireland voiced their concerns regarding Street View’s imagery to be held for a suitable period of time. Furthermore, Street View was only implemented in Germany after the company agreed that users were allowed to request the removal of their pictures prior to upload. This subsequently forces Google to remove any pictures of faces, house numbers and license plate of any individual who requested for their photographs to be deleted. However, due to the aforementioned argument that the notifications cannot reach every single person, some of the people who got their images taken might not be aware of it and cannot therefore request for their image’s removal.
Nonetheless, because of many complains coming from many European countries, Google adapts their Street View software to the rules and requirements of each respective country. One of the main arguments about Street View not intruding an individual’s privacy is that it only offers obscured and abstract images of places (Düsseldorfers Kreis 2008). Nevertheless, Google has voiced its willingness to implement better technology that would blur the images adequately and allowing for a take-down mechanism for collected images. Furthermore, the company has assured that they will work with 29 Working Party, representing 27 European nations, in promoting stricter privacy protections. Google’s Global Privacy Counsel, Peter Fleischer, upholds the following advanced protections: advance public notice about when and where Google would be photographing, removing un-blurred images and removing any unnecessary blurring on images that pose no privacy threat. The company, up till now, tries to develop better software that would not only protect a person’s privacy but will uphold their goal of providing realistic, detailed and beautiful images of places to people around the world.
However, even though Google Street View only offers scene-centric images with blurred faces of people passing by, the system is still a threat to a person’s privacy because each person will still be identifiable by their clothing, body type or posture. An individual’s character might even be negatively assumed because they happened to pass by and be photographed at the wrong places just at a specific time. Furthermore, the company did not specify how they plan to create a better take-down mechanism for the pictures; their present mechanism is both time consuming and impractical, the company have to find a faster and more efficient way of taking down the images of people who does not want to be a part of the scenic images.
This may even include the company providing each person with the choice of removing his or her own image by himself or herself so long as that he or she gives the needed information that would prove that it is truly his or her image. Yet, Google’s willingness to develop better technology to ensure a safer way of imaging and their readiness in working with representatives from different European nations shows that the company is eager to fix these problems in order to provide its customer with an easy and safe way of finding information.
In this paper I stated the reasons in which Google Street View infringe on individual privacy: Street View lacks consent from the individuals who partake in their photographed images, the automatic image processing software they use to spot and blur human faces and vehicle number plates is flawed, and there is no specified period of time on how long the images are stored or who can access it. Even though there is still an on-going debate on whether taking a picture of a place where people happen to pass by can be considered as processing their data, a certain degree of respect should be practiced in order to protect people’s privacy. Google Street View is a new technology that provides us with the ability to experience walking down the streets of Rome without having the need to travel or to see which restaurants to visit when in Brazil. Furthermore, it manifests our ever developing talent of creating easy and faster ways of sharing information to people all over the world. Nevertheless, we should always remember that we are also individuals in need of keeping some things to ourselves, may it be the colour of our bedroom curtain, an everyday-favourite scarf or a characteristic sulking stance.
Siemoneit, O., Hubig, C., et al. ”Google Street View and Privacy: Some thoughts from a philosophical and engineering point of view.” The Nexus Project funded by German Research Foundation (2009). Mendeley Labs. Web. 14 March 2013 Segall, Jordan. “Google Street View: Walking the Line of Privacy- Intrusion upon Seclusion and Publicity Given to Private Facts in the Digital Age”. University of Pittsburgh School of Law Journal of Technology Law and Policy (2010). Web. 14 March 2012 Davies, S., “PI files complaint about Google Street View”. Privacy International 2009. Privacy International. 23 March 2009. Web. 14 March 2013 “Google bows to German privacy demands”. Spiegel Online International 2009. Google Scholar. September 9, 2009. Web 14 March 2013