Google Street View Sparks Privacy Concerns in Germany

Google is bringing Street View to 20 German cities in 2010, offering users the opportunity to have images of their homes removed from its database before they are published to the Web. Germany's privacy head is not happy.

Google is bringing its Street View technology to Germany this year, but not without some serious concerns by the country's top privacy regulator.

Google's Street View is a Google Maps feature that offers live, ground-level photos to give users the lay of the land they're searching.

While the feature is offered in dozens of countries around the world, Germany, South Korea and others fear the technology will display too much information about people.

Google only exacerbated concerns this year when it said it accidentally collected information about citizens over WiFi networks in some 30 countries. Getting into Germany is a small victory in the face of this privacy gaffe.

Google said Aug. 10 that it was bringing Street View to 20 cities, including: Berlin, Bielefeld, Bochum, Bonn, Bremen, Dortmund, Dresden, Duisburg, D??sseldorf, Essen, Frankfurt am Main, Hamburg, Hannover, Cologne, Leipzig, Mannheim, Munich, Nuremberg, Stuttgart and Wuppertal.

The company noted that while several hundred thousand German users already use Street View to check out geographical terrains in travel destinations such as the U.S., Britain, Italy and France each week, the service has not tracked German terrain.

"Of all the countries where the service was still not adopted... Street View in Germany [was] used the most," noted Raphael Leiteritz, Google Maps Product Manager for the Europe, Middle East and Africa, in a blog post.

Germany has traditionally had strong privacy protections, and Google had to make some adjustments for deploying Street View there.

Faces of individuals and licenses plates will be blurred, which is the company's usual practice. Google also offers reporting mechanisms online to let users warn the company of instances where faces or plates were not blurred.

Also, in a first for the company, Google is letting people request that Google remove images of their homes from its Street View database starting next week.

Users will be able to request that their homes be shielded from view before the Street View images are published online. Beginning next week, users will have until Sept. 15 to request that their homes be blocked.

Google will also provide an online tool next week that will allow people to find their house on Street View and mark it for removal.

However, Johannes Caspar, who heads the Hamburg office for data protection, was surprised and unhappy with the way Google is going about this launch.

In a statement, Caspar expressed concern that Google is providing German citizens with such a narrow window of time to ask that their homes be shielded from Street View online.

He also expressed concern that Google is choosing to offer the tool during the summer, when most people are away on vacation and may not have the time or opportunity to make their image removal requests. He also wants a telephone hotline to answer questions from concerned citizens about Street View.

"A process for which a deadline is set in motion, must be carefully prepared, coordinated and announced," Caspar said, adding that Google missed an opportunity to instill confidence in its plans.

Germany isn't the only area Street View is causing consternation.

On August 10, police stormed Google's South Korean offices to see whether Google illegally collected private information as it prepared for the launch of its Street View mapping service there.