Ever since Google Street View was launched in May 2007, there have been concerns from some quarters about how much the scheme infringes on civil liberties. While most of the USA accepted Street View without any trouble, public perception in the UK has proved to be a slightly tougher nut to crack.
Google Street View is a relatively new addition to Google Maps, which allows us to get a street level view of the world from the comfort of our own homes. I remember being amazed at watching webcams in various parts of the world updating every few minutes when I first came online, but this technology is a world away from that.
Google essentially takes pictures of every major town and city in the world and puts the results online. So now, instead of just seeing an aerial view of your street, you can zoom right in until you’re eye to eye with yourself – assuming of course that the Google camera car caught you unaware. But the question remains as to whether Street View infringes on people’s rights to privacy.
Google hasn’t been completely free of legal woes in the US over its Street View system, with a couple of high profile court cases, but in the UK, the trouble started before the camera cars had even left their garages.
At the beginning of July, a privacy rights group asked the Information Commissioner’s Office to take a look at Google Street View to make sure that UK citizens rights were being respected. Privacy International believed the technology broke data protection laws.
Google responded to the claims itself, defending the system against the accusations levelled at it. The company stated that the blurring of faces and license plates ensured that no-one’s individual right to privacy was being inhibited. And now, according to BBC News, the Information Commissioner agrees. His office issued a statement which read:
Although it is possible that in certain limited circumstances an image may allow the identification of an individual, it is clear that Google are keen to capture images of streets and not individuals.
The ICO also said that the delay between the time a picture is taken and it appearing on the Web also ensures it cannot be used as a tool for tracking people. Google welcomed the decision, stating:
We’ve always said we will not launch in UK until we are comfortable Street View complies with local law. We will [also] use technology, like face-blurring, licence plate blurring and operational controls, such as image removal tools, so Street View remains useful and in keeping with local norms wherever it is available.
Not that Google had waited for this decision to be made, as camera cars have been spotted all across the UK already, taking photos of everyone and everything that gets in their way. Despite this, there is no word as yet on when the Street View feature is set to launched in Britain. I personally can’t wait, as I want to see if my next door neighbour really does sunbathe naked.