Google says that it will begin automatically blurring the faces of individuals who are caught on the company’s “Street View” photos. Note that only individuals’ faces will be obscured. Their clothing and other details will still be vividly clear, which would allow for easy identification by acquaintances.
About a year ago, Google launched Street View, where thousands of street-level photos of various U.S. cities were taken by Google operatives and then linked to Google Maps and Google Earth searches. Instantly, there were questions about the privacy of individuals photographed sunbathing, leaving strip clubs, or at crime scenes. Google did not get permission from the people in the photos. At first, Google said that people who wanted their images removed would have to jump through a huge number of hoops.
Wired reproduced a letter sent to an attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation when he requested Google take his image off Street View. Some of the requirements:
1. Provide your legal name.
2. Provide your e-mail address.
3. Provide the street view address of the Street View image you would like removed.
4. Include the sworn statement: “I declare, under penalty of perjury, that the information in this notification is accurate.”
5. Attach a clear, readable copy of a valid photo ID (e.g. driver’s license, national ID card, etc). If you are requesting removal of an image of a location, attach a copy of a document demonstrating your association with that location (e.g. business card or letterhead).
After the resulting uproar over the ridiculous amount of data demanded by Google, the company backed down and changed its requirements. Now, individuals wishing to their photos removed from Street View merely had to send in, “(1) Your name:” and “(2) The location of the image in our service.”
At the time, Google resisted calls for it to automatically blur the faces of individuals in its photos. Supporters of Street View said that the photos were not anything different that what you would see if you walked down the street, so people shouldn’t be upset. Individuals don’t mind if strangers who won’t remember them 10 seconds later watch them walk into buildings, but they don’t expect their trips to medical clinics to be photographed and broadcast worldwide. In a recently published book, I wrote a chapter about camera surveillance and it includes a lengthy discussion about privacy in public spaces.
Canada, which has strong data protection laws, investigated the legality of Google’s Street View photos in September 2007. Later that month, Google’s Global Privacy Counsel admitted that Street View “will look different in Canada than it does in the United States.” He told CBC News that “different” is likely to mean “ blurring identifiable faces and license plates.” This year, EU officials also called for Google to improve privacy protections for individuals caught in the company’s Street View photos.