Microsoft launches StreetView rival in Europe

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A Microsoft mapping car
Image caption,
Microsoft is taking pictures in conjunction with mapping partner Navteq

Microsoft is launching its own version of Google's StreetView - dubbed Streetside - across Europe.

Cars fitted with cameras have begun taking pictures around London and will start mapping major cities on the continent next month.

The service is already available in 56 US towns and cities.

Microsoft has been keen to avoid the privacy concerns that dogged Google's service but said that it does plan to gather wi-fi data.

Initially, Streetside will be on a smaller scale than Streetview, according to the company's director of search, Dave Coplin.

"We're not setting out to record every street. We believe it is most valuable in urban centres where people want to find services," he told BBC News.

Wi-fi data

Microsoft's ultimate aim was to combine Streetside with location-based services, Mr Coplin explained.

To do that, it needed to collect wi-fi data, such as the unique number that identifies the location of a hotspot, the signal strength and the type of wireless signal being used. That information would be used to help locate users.

Google ran into trouble with privacy groups while creating Streetview after it emerged the company intercepted and stored private information from some hotspots.

Google apologised for the "mistake" which it blamed on rogue coding.

The incident led to investigations around the globe, causing the search giant to make radical changes to its privacy policies.

By contrast Microsoft said that it would collect the "bare minimum" of data.

It has already started taking street level photographs, however the wi-fi scanning portion of the process is currently on hold until the company refines its strategy.

"We took the decision to postpone wi-fi data collection. We'd like to do it the right way," said Dave Coplin.

Image caption,
Streetside is already available for some US cities, including New York

Opt out

Another issue which dogged Google in its roll-out of StreetView was whether to allow users to opt out.

Some residents complained that they could only ask for their property to be removed from the service after pictures went live.

In Germany, authorities were reported to be considering legal action against Google.

In the end, they secured the right of householders to opt out of Streetview, having their homes and businesses pixelated before the service went live.

250,000 Germans decided to do this.

As a result, the country introduced a code of practice, meaning all similar services, including Streetside, will have to abide by the same rule.

But Microsoft will not be offering the opt-out to people in other countries.

"It came up in our discussions with privacy bodies but the opt-out service was not something high on their list of priorities," said Mr Coplin.

Microsoft said it had consulted with data protection authorities and privacy bodies such as Privacy International throughout the development of Streetside.

"Privacy is imbued in everything we do," said Mr Coplin.

It will notify the public about the service ahead of pictures being taken, using advertisements that will include a helpline number and website where people can get more information.

Location and advertising

When Streetside goes live on Microsoft's mobile platforms, including its Windows phones, it will combine with so-called blockview technology which allows images to be flattened out and overlaid with metadata.

That information will be used to offer contextual advertising and other localised information, said Mr Coplin.

"When the majority of people have a smartphone and mobile broadband is completely stable, services such as Foursquare, Groupon and other local services will all come together, offering local services and localised advertisements," he said.

Unlike Google, Microsoft does not have ambitions to map every street in the world.

It should mean the service avoids some of the most bizarre events captured by StreetView.

Those included a naked man climbing into the boot of his car in Germany and images of dead bodies on a street in Rio de Janeiro, which Google was forced to remove shortly after the service went live in South America.