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Google starts Street View in Europe

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Google has started recording the streets of its first non-US city for its Street View service. Google vans with mounted cameras have been spotted on the streets of Rome and Milan.

Street View is the project which allows Google users to see photographs of any street in a surveyed area and even travel through the city, frame by frame.

It has been controversial because of the privacy implications of publishing images which inevitably contain people or private property. A lawsuit was filed in the US earlier this year which alleged that images on the site invaded one couple's privacy.

Europe has stricter privacy safeguards than the US, which could impact on the service once it has been put into operation.

Blog Google Blogoscoped published images last week of cars with Google logos and roof-mounted cameras in Rome and Milan, but no confirmation was received from Google about the project at the time of going to press.

Google global privacy counsel Peter Fleischer said in a blog post last year that the company was aware of the privacy implications of the Street View service.

"We thought hard about how to design Street View so that the service would respect the privacy of people who happen to be walking down a public street at the random moment when we capture an image," said Fleischer. "That's why we designed a simple process for anyone to contact us and have their image removed."

Google has already admitted that it will have to change the way Street View operates in order to comply with EU privacy laws.

"We've always said Street View will respect local laws wherever it is available and we recognise that other countries strike a different balance between the concept of 'public spaces' and individuals' right to privacy in those public spaces," said Fleischer. "There's an important public policy debate in every country around what privacy means in public spaces. That balance will vary from country to country, and Street View will respect it."

Fleischer said for countries such as Canada and many in Europe it will use technology to try to retain the service's usefulness and keep it on the right side of privacy laws.

"Basically, Street View is going to try not to capture 'identifiable faces or identifiable license plates' in its versions in places where the privacy laws probably wouldn’t allow them (absent consent from the data subjects, which is logistically impossible), in other words, in places like Canada and much of Europe.

"How would Street View try not to capture identifiable faces or license plates? It might be a combination of blurring technology and resolution. The quality of face-blurring technology has certainly improved recently, but there are still some unsolved limitations with it

"Lowering the quality of resolution of images is another approach to try not to capture identifiable faces or license plates. If the resolution is not great, it’s hard (or even impossible) to identify them. Unfortunately, any such reduction in resolution would of course also reduce the resolution of the things we do want to show, such as buildings. So, it's a difficult trade-off."

In the US Google has, since last summer, agreed to remove faces or car number plates on request from the person whose face or number plate is shown.

If Google were to start recording streets for the service in the UK, "there would be privacy issues" if the image is of sufficient quality to identify an individual, the Information Commissioner's Office told OUT-LAW.COM.

"We urge those looking to use such technology to be mindful of the fact that although they may be in a public place, not everyone wishes their images to be captured," said an ICO statement.

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