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Google backs calls for global privacy standards

The Internet has changed the information landscape and, increasingly, individual users are finding there's no place to hide on the web - or on the street, come to that, as Google's Street View cars may come and sniff you out wherever you are.

While the likes of Facebook and Google build empires on other people's content, the security of that content is in dispute. Google CEO Eric Schmidt agrees there's no place to hide and suggests teenagers will have to change their names later in life to disassociate themselves from their antics now sprawled all over Facebook.

And when it comes to Google he's no less scary: "We know roughly who you are, roughly what you care about, roughly who your friends are," he said.

This is the CEO of the company that sent specially-modified camera-touting vehicles chugging around the planet taking pictures of as many streets, houses and unwitting individuals as they could get their lenses on. Of course, they were also snaffling up unsecured, but nonetheless private, communications from domestic Wi-fi networks, in an operation it infeasibly claims it knew nothing about.

The biggest backlash against Street View has been in Germany - and that's before the 'product' has even launched there.

This all highlights the fact that the topic of personal privacy is a hot one right now, thanks to the invasion of the Internet into our homes. But what is to be done about it?

Google has wheeled out its chief Global Privacy lawyer Peter Fleisher to go on the offensive following its Street View 'mistake'. We caught up with him in Jerusalem during a series of conferences dubbed Privacy Week.

Fleisher said Google has seen 'radically different reactions' to Street View from country to country around the world. Google of course operates internationally and so has to balance these different cultural attitudes to privacy in the absence of an international understanding.

Fleisher said he thinks Europe and the US are converging on privacy as there's been more debate in the US on the subject in recent years but, essentially, "The Internet is driving a need to think about these things globally."

The Google legal counsel said countries were beginning to get together to talk about privacy "It cant be done in a vacuum," he said.

Street View, he said, had captured the imagination of the privacy debate in a very visible and easy to understand way. But it is "a little different to the average global web service, as it has a very local component.

"It is visibly capturing photographs and streets and local map making and, even in the conversations that we were having with data retention regulators, politicians and governments about Street View, we would hear back very different reactions long before the product was launched."

He gives the example of Germany where he said he'd been talking to the data retention authorities "for two years about the privacy measures around this product in Germany longer than all the other conversations with all the other agencies put together."

In Germany, he said, "there has been intensive political debate about Street View over recent months and it hasn't even launched yet. And yet, in neighbouring countries like Denmark and the Netherlands there's been no debate whatsoever... no controversy.

"It does tell you that these things are culturally defined. What it doesn't tell you is where there should be tools or things that should be different."

Organiser of Privacy Week, Israel's Privacy Protection Commissioner Yoram Hacohen, says data regulation needs to be international and include privacy.

"If you have a problem, the operator is in the US or even in the Cloud - which means he could be anywhere, subject to different laws to the territory in which you are. So in the end we have to come up with a general constant.

"I believe that most citizens wouldn't want their genetic information to be disclosed, for example. No-one wants to show their medical files to everyone. So then you can go up from there," he said. "We will come up with a new balance and this balance will take into account privacy issues."

The dangers of lack of privacy protections would be well known to Germans, he suggests.

"It goes back to the Holocaust and the lists," he said. "They went through this trauma and we went through the same trauma.

"A database of genetic information would give a very accurate picture of the population, if you wanted to get rid of the part you don't want, it would be very easy..."