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Privacy and innovation clash in Google ruling

Faces and car registration plates cannot be identified in images like this view of a Zurich street Keystone

Privacy advocates have praised a Swiss court’s decision for tougher rules governing Google Street View, but experts say it’s wrong to target the internet giant.

The Swiss Federal Administrative Court ruled on Monday that Google must guarantee anonymity in its popular street view service, blurring faces and license plates captured in Switzerland (see Court ruling).

The court largely sided with the Swiss data protection commissioner, Hanspeter Thür, who claimed that Google was breaching citizens’ right to personal privacy.

Google’s right to pursue its commercial interests does not outweigh Swiss privacy laws, the court said in an explanatory note.

Google said it was disappointed by the verdict and was considering an appeal to Switzerland’s top court.

After the ruling, Thür said he had undertaken a “pioneering role” in the fight against Google Street View.

“I’m relieved that the question of whether a citizen walking the streets is fair game for online services has been resolved,” he stated.

“The verdict confirms our right to our own image. The verdict also says that an international player has to observe Swiss law. Google thought it was only subject to US law, because the pictures were taken here but processed and put online in the US.”

Victory for privacy

Switzerland is not alone in its problems with Google Street View. Thür said his counterparts in other countries had issues, adding: “Everywhere the online giant goes, its services test legal limits and break the law.”

European data protection officers meeting in Brussels on Monday were informed about the Swiss decision. French data protection supervisor Gwendal Le Grand told Swiss television that France would be watching to see exactly how the ruling would be implemented in Switzerland.

For Germany’s data protection commissioner, Peter Schaar, the verdict will make Google act more responsibly.

“I think it’s great. This is a real victory for privacy and will certainly serve as an example beyond Swiss borders. German data protection authorities will also review whether we should make such additional demands of Google,” he told Swiss television.

The way of innovation

Since its first moves to link – and copy – data in producing the world’s top search engine, Google has been pushing the boundaries of technology and privacy.

Its Google Street View is just another technological advance that has been undergoing improvements ever since it was launched – like many innovations, argues computer science professor Marc Pollefeys.

“The only way to do this is to try it out,” Pollefeys, of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, told, in defence of Google’s business model.  

“You refine things along the way, you work on things to improve them. Only once you try it out and actually see if it works and if people are interested, does it makes sense to invest more in the technology.”

If companies had to ensure systems were 100 per cent accurate before they were produced, innovations wouldn’t happen, he says.

“I think that is essentially one of the differences between the US and Europe. In the US they have a tendency to just try out things, see if it works and then fine tune things along the way,” he notes.

“Half the products at Google are still in beta release [at an incomplete stage]. This is why they try out things very quickly and then see if it works. I think that way you can innovate.”

“The technology will gradually become better and better.”

Privacy know-how

The Swiss ruling could become tricky in the future, if compared with other instances of photos being taken of an unsuspecting public.  

Will television news stations be forced to pixelate people in their coverage, asks Stéphane Koch, a Geneva-based information security consultant. And what about photos posted to Facebook or the photo sharing website Flickr?

“It raises real questions about the fairness of the application of this ruling for different actors producing the same sort of content. I expect there will be a time when such a ruling or such jurisprudence will be hard to enforce, or will become completely incoherent.”   

He told that Google doesn’t intentionally take photos of people in its city shots. Google also has a mechanism for requesting an image to be altered.

In today’s online world, it’s up to the public to take responsibility for their own privacy, he argues.

“For example on Facebook most people don’t know how to use their privacy settings. People are perhaps too passive, while today this notion of managing our privacy needs to be proactive. We need to master the tools rather than let the tools master us.”

The Swiss Federal Administrative Court ruled on April 5 that Google must guarantee anonymity before publishing faces and license plates captured in Switzerland for the Street View service.

Switzerland’s data protection commissioner had brought the case, claiming that Google was breaching citizens’ right to personal privacy.

The court said Google needs to ensure that all faces and vehicle license plates are blurred before uploading pictures to the service.

Identifying features, such as skin color and clothing must be obscured from people photographed near “sensitive establishments”, such as women’s shelters, schools, courts and hospitals.

The court dismissed Google’s argument that if it ensured all photos were unrecognisable, it would have to pass the cost on to users.

Google said it was “very disappointed” by the ruling. “Street View has proved to be very useful to millions of people as well as businesses and tourist organisations. We’ll now take some time to consider what this means for Street View in Switzerland and [consider] our appeal options,” read a statement.

Google has faced privacy concerns in many of the 27 countries where the Street View application is available.

The service was banned from taking and publishing pictures in Greece in 2009, pending the clarification of legal questions. 

In Japan, Google had to agree a compromise with the authorities after public protests. The company lowered the camera positions on its cars to avoid taking pictures of private gardens or courtyards.

In France, Google was ordered to pay a €100,000 (SFr131,000) fine after violating data protection laws. Google admitted recording private off-line data, including emails and url addresses when filming the streets.

Italy has tightened regulations. Google has to notify the public three days in advance before filming.

Austria has suspended Google Street View for over six months and has demanded further information from the company.

The Czech Republic also suspended the Street View service. 

In Israel, officials have expressed worry Street View might be used by terrorists and told the company to modify the service.

(With input from Jean-Michel Berthoud)

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