Google Street View Now in 50 Nations as Privacy Questions Linger

By Todd R. Weiss  |  Posted 2013-04-23

Google Street View Now in 50 Nations as Privacy Questions Linger

Google's Street View project now covers 50 nations around the world, providing images taken by Street View vehicles that are driven up and down countless thousands of miles of local streets as part of the company's global mapping efforts.

Two countries, Hungary and the Kingdom of Lesotho in Africa, are the latest being added to the growing project, according to an April 23 post by Ulf Spitzer, program manager of Google Street View, on the Google Lat Long Blog.

"Whether you're planning a summer vacation to visit the Colosseum or exploring potential neighborhoods for your next move, Street View gives you instant access to the places you want to see—even before you leave the house," wrote Spitzer.

"Today, we've reached 50 countries with the launch of Street View in Hungary and Lesotho and are significantly expanding our coverage in Poland and Romania, among other locations around the world. This is also the largest single update of Street View imagery we've ever pushed, including new and updated imagery for nearly 350,000 miles of roads across 14 countries."

For map lovers, Internet users and others, the project is a great resource for information, fascinating photographs of places away from home and a portal into life in other places.

But the 50-nation milestone being celebrated by Google is not without controversy. In many nations around the world, including the United States and a host of nations in Europe, government officials have been taking Google to task over Street View data collection efforts that the countries say were too invasive and violated some of their privacy laws.

Just this week, privacy regulators in Germany levied an $189,167 fine against Google to punish the company for not giving notice that it would be collecting user data as well as images using the Street View vehicle fleet after it began in 2007.

Charles King, principal analyst with Pund-IT, told eWEEK in an interview that running into stricter laws in foreign nations is a fact of life that many companies eventually learn. "It's a fair point to bring up," said King. "The one caveat I'd have is that the trouble Google has been running into in Germany and elsewhere is actually fairly common in enterprises that work on a global basis. They should have known going into Germany, which is one of the strictest countries in Europe in terms of privacy law, that running around taking pictures using cars could get them in hot water."

The Street View program came under scrutiny both in the United States and in Europe after it was learned that Google was gathering the information street-by-street between 2007 and 2010, according to an earlier eWEEK report.

Google didn't just collect photos of houses and businesses; it also intercepted data from WiFi modem transmissions that included personal data such as passwords, emails, text messages, users' Internet usage histories as well as other WiFi information. According to a 2012 report from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, the Street View vehicles had collected more than 200GB of such payload data.

Google Street View Now in 50 Nations as Privacy Questions Linger

Google officials maintained that the data on the WiFi networks was being used to help the company create better location-based services, after initially denying that payload data had been collected. They later admitted that the Street View cars had collected such personal information and laid the blame at the feet of a rogue engineer whom they said put that capability into the software on his own accord.

A similar case in the United States was resolved in March when a $7 million settlement was reached between Google and the U.S. government to end a probe into the Street View imaging program, which for three years collected personal information on users wirelessly as the Street View vehicles drove around taking photographs. The fine was designed to resolve investigations that were under way by some 30 state attorneys general over the controversial program.

Google's progress on developing clearer, better-known policies regarding how it will use any of the personal data belonging to its users remains a sore point with many governments around the world, which argue that the search giant is not moving quickly enough to address such privacy concerns.

Earlier in April, in a related move, six European nations, including Germany, announced that the slow pace of Google's progress on privacy issues is causing them to plan their own steps to ensure improved data privacy for their citizens. That could mean hefty fines and deeper investigations into Google's actions on user privacy. The move is being eyed by a European task force being led by France's National Commission for Computing and Civil Liberties (CNIL), which has been waiting since last October for a response from Google on how the search giant would make privacy improvements to protect users of its online services.

Google could potentially be fined about $1 billion for shortcomings in its data privacy policies in Europe.

Meanwhile, Google is continuing the tout the quality of the Street View images that are being collected through the project. The latest Street View images from Hungary and Lesotho bring more intriguing content for users, according to Spitzer. "Now you can take a virtual stroll through the historic center of Budapest, right along the Danube (the river that carves the city in two). See the Hungarian Parliament building or the famous Chain Bridge. Other Hungarian treasures to be discovered include the Széchenyi thermal bath, the largest medicinal bath in Europe, as well as the wonders of Buda Castle."

In Lesotho, viewers can see mountainous imagery captured by the Street View vehicles, as well as such sites as "the Lesotho Evangelical Church, which is one of Africa's oldest Protestant churches, founded in 1833 by missionaries from Paris, and the traditional architecture in Nkesi, Maseru," wrote Spitzer.

Existing Street View coverage in other countries is being expanded, he wrote, including in France, Italy, Poland, Romania, Russia, Singapore and Thailand. "And, we've added new special collections of a host of picturesque spots—using our Street View Trike technology. These include Portugal's Pena National Palace, or the Sha Tin Che Kung Temple in Hong Kong or the Kilkenny Castle in Ireland."

Street View images are now available from regions and nations around the world, including Antarctica, Australia, South Korea and South Africa, covering more than 5 million miles of the world, according to Google.

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