Google Street View may meet its match in Europe – to our loss

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When Google Streetview was given the green-light by the UK’s Information Commissioner last July, it appeared as if sanity had prevailed. Despite the protests of Privacy International, which pops up like a Meerkat every time Google or another tech company tries do do something innovative, the Commissioner ruled that it was “satisfied” that Google’s Street View photo-mapping would have safeguards to avoid risking anyone’s privacy or safety. But then Google made two major errors when it launched Street View last week. It has not covered up the faces of many people on the maps, or the number plates on their cars. And it has not photographed the house of Google’s UK MD – because he lives in a private road. As we say in tech: FAIL.

Given how the largely right-wing UK press would act once it smelt blood, Google is now facing a perfect storm of protest that could hobble Street View – but with it the chances for Europe to join the tide of positive innovation that the release of publicly editable data is going to have on society.

Now a formal complaint about Google’s Street View has been sent to the Information Commissioner (ICO) by Privacy International citing more than 200 reports from members of the public identifiable via the service, and it now wants the ICO to look again at how Street View works. As if it hadn’t already.

But as Google boss Eric Schmidt has said “We agree 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.”

In other words, as fast as people complain to Google that they have been seen on SV standing on a street corner, or they found their house, Google is allowing them to be removed from the system. So how long will PI’s list of 200 last? Probably less than a week. But no matter. PI wants the whole thing switched off.

This is not to lightly dismiss some real concerns. The BBC reports that a woman who had moved house to escape a violent partner was recognisable outside her new home on Street View.

But do I wonder if Google is being disingenuous. Surely it’s system could have been more thoroughly checked before going live? Could it possibly have contemplated the idea that all this publicity would help break the whole story into the mainstream media? Going live and just telling a few tech blogs does not a national issue make.

If Google had wanted to avoid the controversy it could have double-checked its system before going live and conducted a public information campaign. It could have told every private householder in the UK that their property might appear on the Google database and that they’d have the right to take it off. But they did not. Is it not far easier and cheaper to release Street View “half-cocked”, create a storm of media interest, get public awareness and at the same time allow people to remove themselves?

This is, however, a dangerous strategy. In Europe we are obsessed with privacy (at least among the older generation – the younger generation is far more savvy about these things). Just look at Germany’s reaction to Street View.

Plus, Street View will have three powerful forces aligned against it:

– Our innate, culturally European desire for privacy.

– Our innate, culturally European fear of crime / burglars / nosey neighbours.

– Our perfectly legitimate concerns about terrorism, and anything which makes it easier for terrorists to check out locations (a matter which has historically rarely affected mainland North America and which people internally at Google will probably just not get)

– The desire of European governments – especially the current British one – to use any news at all to draw the masses away from blaming them for the Great Recession. They will happily join the mob and the press against Google and Street View.

Meanwhile the ICO is doing the smart thing and just telling Google to “ensure all vehicle registration marks and faces are satisfactorily blurred” and advising “individuals who feel that an image does identify them (and are unhappy with this) should contact Google direct to get the image removed.” Common sense.

And I’m seeing it happen. Traveling down a local street near my house on SV I am starting to come across blank patches where people must have asked to be removed (I live in an area of London where there are plenty of tech-savvy people). Just before the images reach a local school they stop. Someone at Google thought that through. I hope.

However, the system is by no means perfect. It took me 30 seconds to find a car number plate unblurred and another 20 mins to find a man with a face untouched. In other words, not a lot of effort. There is clearly work to be done.

But should we dismiss Street View so lightly?

The UK is one of the most heavily photographed nations on earth. There are more CCTV per square mile here than almost anywhere in the world. They are also always on. Google Street View however is only a snapshot, it does not show trends and we can edit it. That’s a significant difference.

Yes, Google is using these images for commercial purposes. But we can use them too. There are already startups piling in to Streetview to add value to their service

Property or venue recommendation companies will use it. Trusted Places and Qype will be able to integrate Street View.

IRLConnect will implement Google Street View to their presence-based network, to get conversation going around locations.

Novaloca didn’t even wait for Street View. They integrated images from Seety/ which has done it’s own drive around London with cameras. Has Privacy International heard of them? Perhaps it’s not high profile enough of a target.

There will be others: Local councils will be able to identify derelict houses, or map road problems faster and more cheaply than before. Society could actually, conceivably benefit from this technology – and isn’t that why we live in a democracy? To use it better than the bad guys?

So far I think the best one is both environmentally cool and a great idea:, the UK’s largest on-line parking space marketplace allows drivers to find cheaper alternatives to commercial parking lots and in turn, puts the money in home owner’s pockets rather than those of large corporations. Surely a business for our times? It has implemented Street View to allow drivers to view a parking space before they rent it. The implementation is here and you see it by clicking on the Street View tab above the map. This is one of the first commercial implementations of Street View in the UK which adds value to an existing service.

Meanwhile I sympathise with those, like Broadsight’s Alan Patrick, who found their car’s number plate on Streetview unblurred. But he has submitted his (anonymous) email address and asked it to be rubbed from the system. Yes, Alan, Google took a picture of your house without your permission or paying you. Does this contravene some rules on privacy? I’m not sure either, but to be frank, anyone can take a picture of my house and put it on the Internet and I’d be none the wiser. At least Google lets me ask for it to be removed. At least I have some control over this data, some recourse to action.

With one nation, under CCTV, I do not.

  • Privacy Rights

    I think ultimately Google will prevail (and it will be of benefit to UK Internet users). However, Google needs to understand that Europeans take privacy a lot more seriously than Americans, and as such they need to bend over backwards to show that they are the good guys here. Articles like the one in the Times suggesting that Google’s UK head’s house was not photographed by Google Street View does not make for good PR.

    It is no coincidence that Europe has strict data privacy laws and is the birthplace of a lot of privacy based companies like

    Europe is not US!

  • Simon Cast

    If this was someone else I rather doubt the storm would be so big. Broadly, I think PI is creating a crisis in order to be relevant. It is easy to target Google rather than focus on more relevant and pressing matters such as government databases (which can be hacked and with that far more insidious amounts of private information getting into the wrong hands).

    Given the more pressing and far more dangerous threats to private information (ISP data retention, gov data retention, CCTV etc.) PI seems (along with many other commentators) to have loss sense of proportion. I do wonder if this was a European company whether there would such a storm. There is a whiff of prejudice in the over the top outrage.

  • danvers


    Two things: what’s the relevance of the “right wing” UK press? I think you mean the reactionary tabloids who love to knock the internet. As for being right wing, it was the current govt/the EU which created the Information Commissioner and the nightmare of regulation which has come with him.

    Secondly: “The BBC reports that a woman who had moved house to escape a violent partner was recognisable outside her new home on Street View.” – So what? If the violent partner knew which house to look at on SV, presumably he would be able to go to that house IN REAL LIFE as well. It is a complete red herring.

    • Mike Butcher

      Yes, I rather meant the reactionary tabloids. As for the example, it’s just one, but perhaps not the best. Then again it just goes to show the difficulty of finding really tricky examples on the whole thing.

    • Richard McMillan

      I think the press are lashing out at th internet and google specifically, whipping up a storm. This isn’t because they give a hoot about the privacy but rather they see a chance to damage what they see as the antagonist in their battle with the internet.

      I don’t have any privacy issues with streetview. The same, enhanced experience could be achieved by simply walking down a street.

    • Helen Shepherd

      I am writing to express my utter disgust that the UK’s information commissioner gave permission for Google to go round taking pictures of every street in the UK. This is absolutely against privacy laws as enshrined in European Rights Legislation, namely the right of individuals to privacy. There are all sorts of reasons why people do not want their houses on view to the whole world: 1. its is a burglars charter 2. Some people may e.g. work for the security forces and not want their homes on display 3. If this was a research project, it would be rejected by an ethics committee as the wrotten consent of individuals had not been obtained 4. It is very intrusive to someone’s private space – if they want to tell the world about their house they can go on Facebook or some such other site.

      Three cheers for the village in Buckinghamshire that stopped the google cameras – at last common sense is starting to prevail.

  • Jules Morgan

    “It took me 30 seconds to find a car number plate unblurred and a another 20 mins to find a man with a face untouched”

    That’s what I call thorough investigation…

    Typo (I assume) aside, it’s a worthwhile article. I think Streetview is awesome. And the ‘uproar’ is ironic given both the point about CCTV and the news this week that a quarter of government databases infringe our rights in some way.

    I have to think that Google is just taking the backlash for what is an increasing concern in the general populous about privacy in general.

    Honestly, who cares about a couple of unblurred faces ? Ok, so someone *might* have been tracked down if their ex had seen them on streetview, but how is that any more likely than if they happened to drive past ? Come on…

    Nanny state tbh.

  • Anton Mannering

    Good post Mike I agree with a lot of it. Especially the point about the Government using anything as a distraction. Hopefully logic will win the day and not fear-mongering nonsense.

    A few points though.

    I don’t think the desire for privacy or fear of crime are any greater in Europe than anywhere else.
    And as for Streetview being useful for terrorists? I think that’s one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever heard. Especially as you point out yourself that anyone can walk down the street and take a picture. Ridiculous, press-induced paranoia.

    I think your point was totally valid and including these things actually weakens your argument.

    • Anton Mannering

      When I talk about privacy I mean in the general population not amongst the various governments. Who love to use privacy as the scare all to restrict access and hide things

      • Mike Butcher

        I’m talking about privacy in the regulatory sense, not a general desire for privacy. European governments are far more restrictive in that instance than the US. E.G. Try busting a French politicians for having an affair. Yes, a generalisation, but indicative of a more EU approach.

      • Anton Mannering

        I agree absolutely about that Mike and that’s my point.

        – Our innate, culturally European desire for privacy.
        – Our innate, culturally European fear of crime / burglars / nosey neighbours.

        It’s not in our culture it’s in our regulatory environment, specifically to make it more difficult to bust the aforementioned French politician.
        I think that’s an important difference

  • eugene

    I love how the Brits are up in arms about StreetView but do not mind to be recorded by 100+ CCTV cameras every day…. very ironic coming from one of the largest Big Brother states in the world.

    • Monty

      I think that’s a very telling insight Eugene. We British are only up in arms about Street View because we can see it. If we saw how many times a day we were caught on CCTV we may not be so accommodating of it.

      • Ben Godfrey

        Yeah, generally people’s views on privacy issues are highly subjective. They freak out about the cameras, but upload themselves to Facebook, or vice versa.

        Privacy is a complicated issue with many subtleties, not least that our preferences change almost minute to minute. For example, I may want to remain anonymous most of the time, but then I go to a rally and want to stand up and be counted.

        With Google search or GMail, you sacrifice your own privacy in order to use a valuable free service. With street view, those having their privacy invaded are not the same as those benefiting. This misalignment strains the issue.

        I think Street View is a useful service, and that will be what prevails.

  • Lach

    Personally I like StreetView, and have no concerns over privacy or anything else that people have highlighted.

    I do though, understand the reaction it has received.

    They launched the service at a time when personal privacy and freedoms, have and continue to be eroded, beyond anything we as a nation have experienced, (in modern times at least). It is not surprising within this context that there has been opposition to a further intrusion, however innocent.

    It should be noted to those that repeatedly talk about CCTV, that the general public cannot access CCTV footage over the internet, where as StreetView is available to all.

  • Christopher Osborne

    “Google is now facing a perfect storm of protest” in a teacup.

    This will all have blown over in a week or so.

  • alan p

    ” Is it not far easier and cheaper to release Street View “half-cocked”, create a storm of media interest, get public awareness and at the same time allow people to remove themselves? ”

    Tsk – you cynic you :-)

    I do believe there is a broader privacy discussion that is required here – so far my take is that (mainly male) geeks mainly love it and most non geeks do not like it, but still relatively few are aware of it.

    I’m also concerned about the underlying economics – Google’s business model in many areas is to take things in the “commons” (where there is no clear pricing mechanism so they get it for near-free) and then resell it for money, leaving the economic externalities – the “dark side” costs – for others to pick up.

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  • Doug Monro

    I’m convinced that at least in the UK the public will support the excellent product that is Street View – of course it shows you what everyone else sees walking down the street every day… there are much bigger privacy issues to worry about than this one.

    I’m also delighted to report that – as Mike predicted for property and local sites – Zoopla has already integrated Street View into all our maps (sorry for shameless plug but on topic).

  • whatevr

    Three powerful forces, eh? You then list 4 points. Dont you proofread what you publish? Or do you enjoy criticising others for overlooking stuff just like yourself. This article is awful. No wonder you spin out so many

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  • Douglas

    Google claims the public should not be concerned since images will be removed within two hours if requested. This is clearly only happening in a handful of cases with the vast majority of complaints
    being ignored. Quite unacceptable

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  • Rattty

    This is just like the British press, it is very simular to the Brand/Ross thing.

    They can see they are on the way out and once white van man can use the web on the move, ta, ta, papers.

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