Darren Waters

Google's Street View response

  • Darren Waters
  • 7 Jul 08, 09:52 GMT

Last week I published a letter Privacy International had written to Google, questioning certain aspects of Street View.

Street ViewYou can read the accompanying news story here.

Well, now Google has written back to Simon Davies, and in the interests of balance you can read their letter below. There's more here also.

Dear Simon,

Thank you for your email. I am happy to respond to your questions about Street View. I think that we have done an excellent job of balancing valid privacy concerns while maintaining the integrity of what our users tell us is an incredibly useful product.

Google Maps Street View in Europe

I can confirm that Google plans to launch Google Maps Street View in a few European countries. In fact, we launched our first European imagery a few hours before your email on Thursday, covering the route of the Tour de France cycle race. We're currently driving in a number of countries across Europe, including the UK, although we don't have any further launches to announce at this time.

As you probably know, the Street View feature in Google Maps has been available for over a year, but until Thursday's launch it had only featured imagery from the US. You correctly note, however, that we had publicly committed to respect other countries' privacy laws and norms, if and when we did launch outside the US. Yesterday's launch therefore not only brought the value of Street View to new shores and new users, it also demonstrated our commitment to meet the privacy challenges of the product.

Technology and tools to protect privacy

With the new Tour de France imagery we have continued our use of face blurring technology. We actually launched this technology publicly in early May, when we refreshed our imagery in Manhattan, New York. Since then we have applied face blurring to all new imagery launches in the US, including a major launch in June. At the same time we retrospectively applied the same technology to all previously launched US imagery. I'm therefore slightly puzzled that you were told by someone at Google just 6 weeks ago that we were having problems with this technology, when it was already in use.

For the Tour de France route we have supplemented our face blurring technology with a similar system which blurs vehicle license plates, to account for improved image resolution in this launch. And of course, as with all Street View imagery, we provide tools that make it easy for users to report images of concern, and we act swiftly to honor valid requests. In combination, our technology and tools are the best way of ensuring that individuals and vehicles which appear in passing within the product are not identifiable.

As with all such systems operating at this scale our blurring technology is not perfect - we occasionally miss a face or license plate, for example if they are partially covered, or at a difficult angle. However, we tested the technology thoroughly before launch and I am confident that it finds and blurs the vast majority of identifiable faces and license plates. For the few that we miss, the tools within the product make it easy for users to report a face or license plate for extra blurring. As always, users can still ask for their image to be removed from the product entirely. We'll also keep working hard to make sure that the technology continues to get even better.

A commitment to privacy

I strongly believe that this type of privacy-enabling technology, together with effective controls for users, is the best way of meeting the challenge of respecting people's expectation of privacy without stifling the development of new products and services that everyone can enjoy and benefit from. We have already been working with the relevant privacy regulators and groups in different countries in which we will offer Street View, including the UK. You may already be aware that Thursday's Tour de France launch was warmly welcomed by CNIL, the French data protection authority.

I hope that this letter provides satisfactory reassurance for the concerns which you have expressed about Street View. I'm sure you will understand that I cannot share the proprietary specifications for the technology which we have developed, but I believe that the results clearly demonstrate our commitment to provide practical and transparent privacy solutions.

I would be happy to meet with you when I am next in Europe, or when you are next in the US, if you would like to discuss these issues further - please just let me know.

Kind regards

Jane Horvath
Senior Privacy Counsel


  • Comment number 1.

    It really makes me laugh. All this fuss over people appearing in photos of a street. Who cares? This issue has been given far too much coverage as, with everything going on in the world at the moment, it is just not important. Privacy International need to do something more valuable than trying to get media coverage by challenging a company like Google over something so trivial.

  • Comment number 2.

    @aehartly It's not as trivial as you think, this kind of imaging is going to get more common, higher res and more up to date. There are a lot of reasons why people would want to keep things private, there could be photos of someone sat outside a gay cafe on canal st who really doesn't want their rugby team mates to know, it might not seem important to you but these things are to a lot of people.

    Organisations like Privacy International getting coverage in the media is the only reason Google make any effort to protect peoples privacy.

  • Comment number 3.

    "There are a lot of reasons why people would want to keep things private, there could be photos of someone sat outside a gay cafe on canal st who really doesn't want their rugby team mates to know"

    What a random example... play rugby do you?

    Street View is brilliant, the face and number plate blurring works... just go to the tour de France street view and I couldn't see a single number plate which hadn't been blurred

    Please research before criticising

  • Comment number 4.

    Google Street View (GSV) has been at the centre global media hype and criticism by privacy groups and lawyers alike. However it is yet to be declared illegal anywhere in the world. Most recently the UK has been enjoined to the GSV network. So far, despite a complaint by Privacy International UK, the Information Commissioner for Britain has declared GSV compliant with the provisions key statutory provisions regarding privacy otherwise known as the Data Protection Act (DPA). However the DPA is just one strand of law, which GSV comes into potential conflict with. The other strand is the common law the law made by judges in their decisions. However it seems that even under the common law of England and Wales GSV is narrowly within what is legal.

    The common law of privacy is unfortunately premised upon a vaguely defined tort (a civil, not criminal wrong). Anyone trying to assert their privacy against Google would need to allege that Google misused their private information regarding any photograph of them distributed via GSV. The misuse of information is a cause of action based originally upon confidential information and relationships. However thanks to a recent win in the House of Lords by Naomi Campbell this test is now somewhat easier to apply. All that is important now is whether the information, not the relationship, was private and confidential. Hence we no longer call the action breach of confidence, but rather the misuse of private information.

    So assume someone you are photographed on GSV. For you to prove Google misused your private information when it distributed photographs of you via GSV a two-stage test must be overcome. First, and most importantly, you must be able to establish a reasonable expectation of privacy. Once this is established your Article 8 right to privacy, guaranteed under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), as enacted into UK law by the Human Rights Act 1998, is engaged. With this engaged the Court would then weigh up your right to privacy against Googles right to freedom of expression, enshrined in Article 10 of the ECHR. They do so in a balancing act, weighing against each other the factors in favour of each.

    However it is unlikely that you would even be able to pass the first stage of the test. This is because GSV now blurs all faces automatically through new software. In all the decided cases where claimants have successfully established a reasonable expectation of privacy there has been an undeniable and overwhelming focus upon the claimant in the photograph or publication. For instance Naomi Campbell, despite being photographed in the street was the only face visible, all others being pixelated out. Moreover she was the subject of the accompanying newspaper story. Similarly when tabloids have harassed Princess Caroline von Hannover for the purpose of gossipy celebrity news stories or when the media has released images of a mans suicide attempt in public the Courts have stressed how the publication focussed upon the claimant. In the Campbell case the House of Lords made explicit reference to this fact drawing a key distinction.

    They said that a persons privacy would not arise when they are photographed incidentally in a street scene where they do not form the true subject of that piece. By comparison they noted that privacy might arise where the street scene is the mere backdrop for one or more persons who constitute the true subject of the piece. Hence if Victoria Beckham is photographed in a crowd at her husbands football match where the purpose is a story about her then privacy may arise. This will not happen where the photograph was taken and published for the purpose of showing the crowd at the football game. Hence as GSVs name suggests it captures street views not individuals. It does not focus upon any one person, a fact made all the clearer now that it blurs faces automatically through updated software. Even if you remained identifiable by some other distinguishing feature, for instance a crazy hairstyle or noticeable tattoos, or if your face remained unblurred due to the fallibility of GSVs software, it seems that as GSV places no focus on you in particular. Consequently it seems you would be unable to claim against GSV.

    Although this result might seem odd it has a latent rationality to it. If the apparent focus upon the claimant requirement was absent, or less important in the decided cases then where could the line be drawn regarding privacy. If the published photograph need not focus upon the claimant then the media would be severely curtailed. Crowd events and any reporting in public would be severely limited if passers-by caught unawares in the backgrounds of photographs could suddenly raise expensive privacy claims at television networks, magazines and newspapers. Hence although the law is not perfect it is a compromise of convenience. The law is rarely perfect and nearly always pragmatic: the law of privacy is no exception.

  • Comment number 5.

    To be honest I never even noticed peoples' faces were blurred or the number plates were missing. I use GSV more just to see what the road I will be driving on tomorrow looks like (e.g where to turn) or if there are any interesting / useful stores on the side.

    And just a side thought, the people and vehicles are actually a nuisance cause on several occasions they have blocked a vital part of a, say shop name or the door number of my friend's house!


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