Google Street View will not be constrained to ensure that all images of faces and licence plates are obscured, the Federal Court ruled on Friday. Instead, people may ask Google to blur their image manually.
The ruling partially overturns a decision taken by the Federal Administrative Court in April last year in a case brought by the Swiss data protection commissioner. Then, the court ruled that Google’s right to pursue its commercial interests did not outweigh Swiss privacy laws and ordered the internet giant to guarantee total anonymity.
But the Federal Court said the lower court’s ruling in favour of a total guarantee of anonymity went too far. It said it was enough to ensure anonymity in a “sufficient” manner in images with faces and car licence plates.
The court noted that Google used technology designed to blur personal characteristics. It ruled that the permissible error rate for such technology should be no higher than one per cent and said it would be disproportionate to impose a rule of total anonymity over faces and licence plates before the images were published on Street View.
Furthermore, these images can be blurred manually by Google upon request. To that end, the court ordered Google must treat all such requests without red tape, and offer a free contact service online and a postal address to ensure requests for anonymity can be easily resolved.
In response to the ruling, the head of Google’s Swiss legal department, Daniel Schönberger, said in a statement: “We are pleased that the Swiss Federal Court upheld the essential point of our appeal, recognising the existence of solid tools for control and protection of privacy such as the automatic blurring of faces and license plates.”
The ruling was far from a complete win for Google, with the court ordering that images captured in the vicinity of establishments such as hospitals, schools, prisons, women’s shelters and courts be automatically blurred before going online.
In addition, images of private spaces such as enclosed courtyards and gardens, and areas not open to view for general passers-by must not be published on Street View without prior consent of the persons concerned.
And Google must inform the public when it is preparing to capture images in certain places by advertising through local and regional press, and not simply via a notice on its website.
Swiss data protection commissioner Hanspeter Thür said in a statement that he was “extremely satisfied” with the decision, which “by clarifying a number of key points has strengthened data protection in Switzerland”.
Thür said it was significant that the court had ruled that foreign companies were subject to Swiss law, and therefore to the jurisdiction of his office.
“The Federal Court emphasises that individuals should not feel as if they are under constant surveillance,” Thür said. “[It] stipulates that in addition to faces, other identifying characteristics such as skin colour, clothing, aids of physically disable persons etc. should no longer be identifiable.”
Street View woes
Google has faced privacy concerns in many of the more than 40 countries where the Street View application is available.
In 2009, the service was banned from taking and publishing pictures in Greece pending the clarification of legal questions, while in Japan, the company lowered the camera positions on its cars to avoid taking pictures of private gardens or courtyards following public protests.
Italy also tightened privacy regulations and ordered Google to notify the public three days in advance before filming. In Austria and the Czech Republic, the service was suspended in 2010 as authorities sought more information.
Google Street view in Switzerland
Google Street View was launched in the US in 2007.
A car fitted with a special camera drives around the locality taking photos which then have to be processed to produce a 360 degree picture.
In Switzerland mapping started in March 2009, and the first cities went online in August. The service has also used a snowmobile to map the Zermatt ski resort.
Concerns about violations of personal privacy – faces and car numbers were still recognisable – led the data protection commissioner to impose a temporary stop on Street View activities.
The Federal Administrative Court in April 2011, ruled in favour of the data protection commissioner and said Google must guarantee total anonymity. That ruling was overturned by the Federal Court in June 2012.
swissinfo.ch and agencies