Germany keeps an eye on Google's Street View tool

Google is launching tool letting people proactively block images of their property

German data protection officials are keeping close watch on Google as the company prepares to launch an online tool that lets people proactively block images from appearing on its Street View photo mapping Web application.

People in certain areas in Germany will be able to submit descriptions of their property and Google will remove those from Street View before the images are published, which is planned before the end of this year, according to a Google spokeswoman.

Google plans to launch Street View next week in 20 cities in Germany: Berlin, Bielefeld, Bochum, Bonn, Bremen, Dortmund, Dresden, Duisburg, Dusseldorf, Essen, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Hanover, Cologne, Leipzig, Mannheim, Munich, Nuremberg, Stuttgart and Wuppertal.

The tool will go live next week and will be shut down at midnight on Sept. 15, the spokeswoman said. People may also send letters to Google through midnight on Sept. 21 for those 20 cities.

After those dates, only people from outside those cities will be able to use the tool. However, once the Street View images for those cities are published, users can request through Google's Web site to have images removed. Google has also accepted letters requesting removal of images since April 2009, the spokeswoman said.

The online tool is only being offered in Germany and appears to be an attempt by Google to allay privacy concerns from data protection officials, but may have stirred new ones.

Peter Schaar, Germany's federal commissioner for data protection, expressed concern on his blog about the time limits for the tool and how Google stores the data of people who do not want certain images published on Street View, among other issues. Schaar wrote that up to 10,000 people have contacted Google objecting to parts of Street View.

Likewise, Hamburg's Data Protection Authority (DPA) would like to see Google offer the online tool for a longer period, said Johannes Caspar, who heads the agency, on Thursday. Caspar said he believes the tool is "easy to understand" and that people should be comfortable with using it.

The DPA has held discussions with other data protection officials in Germany and plans on disseminating information to German citizens on the procedures for how they can get Google to remove images, he said.

Google is expected to supply more information on Friday morning about how it will handle the personal data of people who object to certain images, as the company will be collecting information such as addresses, Caspar said.

"This is very important to know how Google will handle this data," he said.

Google said it would continue to work with data protection officials.

"We've been very careful to keep the German Data Protections Authorities informed at every stage of this product's development because we work hard to ensure that they, and German users, understand the various tools we have in place to privacy in Street View," the company said in a statement.

Google faced inquiries about Street View last year from data protection authorities in Germany who questioned how the company retains data and how thoroughly it censors parts of images such as people's faces. Google and Hamburg's DPA reached an agreement on a dozen or so concerns the agency had about Street View.

The company faced further scrutiny after Hamburg's DPA requested an audit of the collected Street View data. Google later admitted that an engineer had written some code for an experimental Wi-Fi project that sampled "payload data" for publicly broadcast Wi-Fi networks. That code ended up in the software used in Google's Street View cars, which collect images of street scenes for Google's Maps application.

The data gathered included information such as SSID (Service Set Identifier) information and MAC (Media Access Control) addresses. Hamburg's prosecutor's office is continuing a criminal investigation started in April into Street View and its collection of Wi-Fi data.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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