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Call to 'shut down' Street View

24 March 09 00:45 GMT

A formal complaint about Google's Street View has been sent to the Information Commissioner (ICO).

Drawn up by lobby group Privacy International (PI), it cites more than 200 reports from members of the public identifiable via the service.

PI wants Street View shut down while the ICO investigates the service.

"The ICO has repeatedly made clear that it believes that in Street View the necessary safeguards are in place to protect people's privacy," said Google.

Privacy International (PI) director Simon Davies said his organisation had filed the complaint given the "clear embarrassment and damage" Street View had caused to many Britons.

Speaking to the BBC, Google boss Eric Schmidt, said: "We agree with the concerns over privacy.

"The way we address it is by allowing people to opt out, literally to take anything we capture that is inappropriate out," he said "and we do it as quickly as we possibly can."

He added: "We are getting controversy over street view because it is so successful. It turns out that people love to see what is going on in their local community."

Private and public

Mr Davies said Street View fell short of the assurances given to the ICO that enabled the system to launch.

"We're asking for the system to be switched off while an investigation is completed," said Mr Davies.

"The Information Commissioner never grasped the gravity of how a benign piece of legislation could affect ordinary lives," he added.

In July 2008, the ICO gave permission for Street View to launch partly because of assurances Google gave about the way it would blur faces and registration plates.

Since Street View launched in the UK on 19 March, PI has been contacted by many people identifiable via the service.

Among them were a woman who had moved house to escape a violent partner but who was recognisable outside her new home on Street View.

Also complaining were two colleagues pictured in an apparently compromising position who suffered embarrassment when the image was circulated at their workplace.

The ICO said it had received the complaint from PI and would respond "shortly".

It added: "It is Google's responsibility to ensure all vehicle registration marks and faces are satisfactorily blurred.

"Individuals who feel that an image does identify them (and are unhappy with this) should contact Google direct to get the image removed," it added.

"Individuals who have raised concerns with Google about their image being included - and who do not think they have received a satisfactory response - can complain to the ICO."


"Data protection is a question of taking reasonable steps," said Nick Lockett, an IT lawyer with DL Legal.

"If Street View is infringing privacy then almost anything you can do with data is going to be infringing privacy," he added.

Struan Robertson, a legal director at Pinsent Masons, said he did not think the turning on of Street View would result in court action against Google for breaching privacy.

"That's largely because we have got rulings from the courts on when a photograph risks privacy rights and when it does not," he said.

Recent cases in the courts have revolved around whether the focus of a camera was on an individual. Google's Street View, which snaps the whole scene, would seem to pass that test, he said.

Responding to the filing of the complaint, Google described it as a "publicity stunt"

In a statement the firm said: "Before launching Street View we sought the guidance and approval of the independent and impartial Information Commissioner's Office (ICO)."

Google said the ICO had re-iterated its confidence that Street View did enough to protect privacy.

"The fact that some people have used the tools in place to remove images shows that the tools work effectively," it added.

"Of course, if anyone has concerns about the product or its images they can contact us and we look forward to hearing from them," it said.

Mr Davies said the ICO should take another look at Street View because of the promises Google gave about the efficacy of its face-blurring system.

In its complaint, PI said Google's assertion that its face blurring system would result in a "few" misses was a "gross underestimation".

This meant, said the complaint, that the data used for Street View came under Data Protection legislation which requires that subjects give permission before information is gathered.

"The promised privacy safeguards do not provide adequate protection to shield Street View from the general requirement of notice and consent," said the complaint.

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