Swiss court to rule on Google Street View privacy

A Swiss court is considering a request from the country's data protection commissioner that Google should manually blur people's faces in its Street View imagery application rather than use automated technology.

Hanspeter Thuer, the Swiss Federal Data Protection and Information Commissioner (FDPIC), contends that too many faces are missed by the automated blurring technology and that people should review the images.

Google and the FDPIC both made presentations on Thursday to a five-judge panel of the Swiss Federal Administrative Court, which will issue a ruling in a few weeks, said Eliane Schmid, the FDPIC's information officer.

Google has been in a long-running battle with Switzerland over Street View since it came online in that country in August 2009. A month after Street View's launch, Google was warned by the agency that it should take more steps to protect people's privacy and gave Google some recommendations, including to more carefully blur people who are outside sensitive facilities, such as hospitals and prisons.

Google has said that its blurring technology is more than 99% effective, but "everybody goes on Street View and looks around for areas we live in. Everyone finds faces or number plates that are identifiable," Schmid said.

"It is up to them [Google] to come up with a solution," she said.

In a statement provided by Google's London office, the company said it uses "a variety of technical and operational controls" with Street View.

"Although blurring technology may occasionally miss a number plate or face, it catches the majority of these images and is a very effective tool," Google said. "This is new technology and we are always working to make improvements. Where we are notified that a number plate has not been blurred, we will blur the plate manually."

The FDPIC also complained about the height of Google's periscopic cameras used to take the imagery, which are mounted atop vehicles. Google resisted, saying it would not lower the cameras since it puts the devices closer to people's faces.

Google did lower the camera height in Japan, but not for privacy: The company said it was done to preserve image quality because the streets are more narrow than other locales and houses are closer together.

Switzerland is just one of many companies that have challenged Google over Street View over privacy issues.

Some of the more fierce criticisms arose in Germany. In response, Google allowed German citizens in certain areas to request that their properties be blurred before Street View went live in November. Germany was the only country in which Google gave people that option. More than 250,000 opt-out requests were received by the company.

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