Switzerland Drops Legal Hammer on Google Street View

By Clint Boulton  |  Posted 2009-11-14 Print this article Print

What flies in some countries won't in others.

That's the lesson Google is learning from its latest struggle with Switzerland, which is suing the search engine over its Street View feature in Google Maps, which provides 360° horizontal and 290° vertical panoramic street-level views of 100-plus cities all over the world:

Street View NYC 1.png

When people sit at their computer or log into their Google account from their smartphone, they tend to marvel at Street View when they use it to look at ground floor footage of a city.

But that includes the people who live there, and some folks get upset when they see pictures of themselves, which are shot from cameras attached to Google-sanctioned cars, or even trikes.

This is what has upset Hanspeter Thuer, the Swiss Data Protection Authority commissioner. He wants Google to ensure that all faces and car plates are blurred and that Google erase images of walled gardens and private streets, among other demands. Thuer said in a statement:

Numerous faces and vehicle number plates are not made sufficiently unrecognizable from the point of view of data protection, especially where the persons concerned are shown in sensitive locations, e.g. outside hospitals, prisons or schools.

He said Google failed to comply with requests he made in August for the company to be more vigilant about protecting the privacy of Swiss people. Now, he is suing Google, a first for the search engine over Street View, which has ruffled feathers in Japan, Greece, Germany and elsewhere.

In the meantime, Thuer wants Google to erase all pictures taken in Switzerland and to cease taking any more pictures in the country until a ruling is made.

Google has a different take, arguing that it spoke to the Swiss DPA before the launch, which gave Street View its blessing. Peter Fleischer, Google's global privacy counsel, said:

This pleasure turned to disappointment, however, when Herr Thuer changed his mind a few days after launch and sought to stop users from being able to enjoy exploring Swiss towns and cities on their computers.

Fleischer said Google promised to improve license plate and face blurring in Switzerland; monitor sensitive areas; consult with abortion clinics and women's refuges; and inform the public of Street View driving, or when those Google-tagged cars will be roaming the streets, shooting pictures.

Google in August also created a great Street View tutorial to tell users how to use it, where Street View imagery is available and where Google Street View vehicles are gathering new imagery.

Apparently, this transparency did little to assuage Switzerland, which, while neutral in most matters, is reportedly strict about peoples' privacy.

I see the Street View cars occasionally here in Connecticut, reminding me of Google's hunger for gulping information about the world, like a whale swallowing data like so much plankton. I don't feel one way or another about it, but I know it bothers people I know.

Does Street View scare you?

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