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.
Car bearing Google Maps logo and mounted camera on streets of MilanStreet 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 that Street View operates in order to comply with EU privacy laws.
"We've always said that Street View will respect local laws wherever it is available and we recognize 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 that 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," he said.
"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," he said.
"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," said Fleischer.
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.
The ICO also said that Street View should be sensitive to situation-specific concerns. "We would ask those operating such technology to do so responsibly to ensure images are not captured in places requiring a certain amount of privacy – outside a school, in someone’s garden, etc," it said.
The UK does not have a privacy law, but in recent years the law of confidence and the European Convention on Human Rights, translated into UK law as the Human Rights Act, have been used in the courts to try to keep certain things private.
In the UK, data protection law allows the taking of photographs in public places without the permission of people who will appear in the photo, but that does not apply for photos for commercial purposes. For those, subjects should be notified.
There is also a right to prevent the display of an image which will cause substantial distress. This can be pre-emptive, meaning that if you can identify yourself to Google and think you have been photographed by the company you can request that the photograph never be published if you can show that the publication will cause you substantial distress.
Struan Robertson, editor of OUT-LAW.COM and a technology lawyer with Pinsent Masons, said data protection laws would not be an issue if individuals could not be identified.
"What Fleischer suggests is a good way of circumventing the Data Protection Act and its demand for notification, which would probably necessitate loudspeakers on the camera cars," he said. "It's hard to imagine Google cars driving around and shouting at pedestrians."
But Robertson also pointed to a recent ruling that took a dim view of privacy rights on the streets of Britain.
Children's author JK Rowling last year failed to win a case which hinged on the degree to which she and her children could expect privacy on a public street. She was photographed by agency Big Pictures walking in the street with her then 20 month old son David.
The Sunday Express used the pictures and settled with Rowling, but Big Pictures contested the case and last August succeeded in having a judge throw the case out before a full trial could take place.
"If a simple walk down the street qualifies for protection then it is difficult to see what would not," said Mr Justice Patten in the High Court.
"For most people who are not public figures in the sense of being politicians or the like, there will be virtually no aspect of their life which cannot be characterised as private. Similarly, even celebrities would be able to confine unauthorised photography to the occasions on which they were at a concert, film premiere or some similar occasion."
"I start with a strong predisposition to the view that routine acts such as the visit to the shop or the ride on the bus should not attract any reasonable expectation of privacy," he said. "It seems to me inevitable that the boundaries of what any individual can reasonably expect to remain confidential or private are necessarily influenced by the fact that we live in an open society with a free press. If harassment becomes an issue then it can and should be dealt with specifically."
The ruling has been appealed.