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Google Asked To Shut Down Street View Service Over Privacy Complaints

March 24, 2009

The Information Commissioner (ICO) has issued a formal complaint over Google’s Street View service, which has been the subject of numerous privacy and safety concerns in the last few weeks, BBC News reported.

Privacy International (PI), a lobby group, has cited more than 200 reports from members of the public who have been identified by Street View, asking the service to shut down while the ICO investigations continue.

Google said, however, that the ICO had repeatedly supported Street View’s claim that all of the necessary safeguards were in place to protect people’s privacy.

The organization said it had filed the complaint because of the “clear embarrassment and damage” Street View had caused to many Britons, according to Privacy International (PI) director Simon Davies.

Google boss Eric Schmidt told BBC News the Internet search leader agreed 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 and we do it as quickly as we possibly can,” he said.

Schmidt said Street View was only getting controversy because of its growing success. “It turns out that people love to see what is going on in their local community.”

Street View fell short of the assurances given to the ICO that enabled the system to launch, Davies said. And now they are asking for the system to be switched off while an investigation is completed.

Davies added that the Information Commissioner never grasped the gravity of how a benign piece of legislation could affect ordinary lives.

The ICO gave permission for Street View to launch In July 2008, mostly because Google assured them it would blur faces and registration plates.

However, PI has received numerous complaints from citizens who were identified by the service since Street View launched in the UK on March 19.

One woman was even forced to move from her home to escape a violent partner who was recognizable outside her new home on Street View.

Two colleagues also filed a complaint after being pictured in an apparently compromising position that resulted in embarrassment once the image began circulating around their work environment.

Once the ICO received the complaint from PI, it responded by saying it would address the issue “shortly,” adding it was Google’s responsibility to ensure all vehicle registration marks and faces are satisfactorily blurred.

The ICO released a statement saying: “Individuals who feel that an image does identify them (and are unhappy with this) should contact Google direct to get the image removed.”

“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,” it continued.

Nick Lockett, an IT lawyer with DL Legal, said data protection is a question of taking reasonable steps, adding that if Street View was “infringing privacy” then almost anything you can do with data is going to be “infringing privacy”.

However, the turning on of Street View would likely not result in court action against Google for breaching privacy, according to Struan Robertson, a legal director at Pinsent Masons.

“That’s largely because we have got rulings from the courts on when a photograph risks privacy rights and when it does not,” he added.

“Before launching Street View we sought the guidance and approval of the independent and impartial Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO),” Google said, in response to the complaint filing.

Google said in a statement that the ICO had re-iterated its confidence that Street View did enough to protect privacy, adding that the fact that some people have used the tools in place to remove images shows that the tools work effectively.

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

PI called Google’s assertion that its face blurring system would result in a “few” misses a “gross underestimation”.

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

It went on to say that the promised privacy safeguards do not provide adequate protection to shield Street View from the general requirement of notice and consent.

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