Google Street View Runs Into Controversies in Switzerland and Israel

By Patrick Morgan | February 24, 2011 4:51 pm

Last year, Google raised the ire of many when it confessed that its city-mapping Street View vehicles unintentionally gathered unencrypted Wi-Fi data as they rolled past people’s abodes. To fix its image and to fend off lawsuits, the company soon tightened its privacy policies and ensured that its Street View cars stopped collecting that information. But the controversies just won’t stop. Google is now trying to convince privacy-conscious Swiss officials to drop the country’s tight Street View restrictions, while security-conscious Israeli officials are concerned that the technology will help terrorists.

Twenty-seven countries have been partially mapped via Street View, a Google product that provides 360-degree panoramic views from ground level. The company creates these images by sending groups of camera-studded vehicles to various parts of the world to snap pictures as they drive.

Although Switzerland is home to one of Google’s largest offices outside the United States, the country has strict privacy laws that have prevented Google from loading new Street View images of Switzerland for the past year. On Thursday, Google petitioned a Swiss court to lift this ban. The search engine company told Switzerland’s Federal Administrative Court that its technology automatically conceals the identity of faces and license plates, and that it is no different from rival services.

But Hanspeter Thuer, Switzerland’s data protection commissioner, doesn’t believe Google: He showed several examples of images in which the people were readily identifiable.

“I don’t want a ban of Google Street View,” Thuer told the court. “But in the present form Google Street View breaches basic principles of privacy.” … Thuer wants Google to guarantee that all faces and car plates are blurred — if necessary by checking all pictures manually. He also demanded that private gardens and sensitive locations such as schools, hospitals and women’s shelters be obscured. Google lawyers countered that the company is continually improving its Street View technology and that the images are too banal, and of too poor quality, to be used to identify individuals whose privacy might be breached. [AP]

While the Swiss court is still thinking the matter over, Google is still taking pictures. The company wants to add the ski slopes around Switzerland’s Matterhorn mountain in its Street View maps, and recently sent out a camera-equipped snowmobile.

Street View’s constant expansion is also set to include Israel, where some government officials hope the online maps will promote tourism. However, other officials worry that the photographs of streets and buildings would aid Palestinian militants, who have already used Google Earth to identify rocket targets.

“We already have problems with Google Earth, which exposes all kinds of facilities,” retired Lt. Col. Mordechai Kedar told the Associated Press. The 25-year veteran of Israeli intelligence said that Street View could facilitate terrorist attacks. [Los Angeles Times]

On Monday the Israeli Cabinet discussed the issues surrounding Street View, and ultimately decided to start working with Google on how the service could be safely introduced to the country. Experts say it’s likely that Street View will be prohibited from posting photographs of particularly sensitive locations, like government offices and power stations. And some Israelis think the Israeli government shouldn’t make the decision for the entire country, and argue that communities should be given a choice on whether to use Street View.

Andre Oboler, director of the Community Internet Engagement Project at the Zionist Federation of Australia, wrote in a blog post on the Jerusalem Post website that Street View could boost tourism in public places of historical, cultural and religious interest…. “Gated communities, kibbutzim and villages for new immigrants in particular should have a right to keep out the Street View car, or to invite it in. The default should be exclusion until the local community give permission,” Oboler wrote. [Los Angeles Times]

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology
  • Jon Deane

    This is insane. People should have no expectation of privacy in a public area. Why the controversy? The street view cars can’t see anything a pedestrian on the street couldn’t see. What’s next, mandatory blindfolds when outside our homes so we don’t invade others privacy?

  • Anne

    There is a big difference in the type of exposure one has when walking down the street, and the wider exposure of having your face and location on the internet. There are people in our societies for whom this would be a danger. I don’t believe that Street View performs a valuable enough service for that kind of breakdown of the barriers of what we can expect in daily life, especially when a GPS will get us somewhere just as easily without photographs.

  • Idlewilde

    At least they admitted it…no one would have known if they hadn’t.

  • Grum

    Jon,

    There is a difference between someone being seen in a street and having their photo put online for the whole world to see.

    And some people simply don’t like their photo being taken full stop, let alone the photo being published.

  • scott

    I agree with some of the privacy stuff, and there is a creepy element to all this, but its great for buying property, as you can ceck out the yard, the neighbors – you can even tell if the yards are filled with junk – areas you can walk to, etc. Also good for zooming in and checking out streets as far as renting a vacation house, like in a city in Europe, seeing how the street looks, what the cafes are like, etc as so many places are advertised making them seem better than they are.

    When my parents were looking for houses in Santa Fe on line, they would send me listings they liked and I would street view them, letting them know what was around them. One house they passed on (that they liked from the pics) had two houses on either side piled with hoarder crud…that was a year and a half ago and that house is still for sale, wedged in by unfortunate hoarding on both sides. Anwyay, it saves time, as when the went to buy, they did not waste time on places that they knew they would not live. Also..some of my neighbors that I dont know, I was suprised how many wonderful backyard oasis with giant pools and guest houses are hidden behind fences and hedges in LA.

  • http://discovermagazine.com Iain

    Jon Deane
    Ever use a celphone? you are broadcasting a radio signal when you do. Should just anybody be allowed to record and publish these phone calls? It is the same thing. Your private public life on the internet. The lines need to be drawn, with public input.

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