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Summary: Google Street View, Germany, and privacy issues

After a series of incidents and lawsuits, Google Street View abandoned the streets of Germany in April, 2011. Although they were not enforced to leave the country, the company decided not to expand the pictures that were already taken voluntarily.

Even before the service being launched in Germany, Google Street View gathered a large number of critics. Despite those comments, in November, 2010, the program went online showing pictures of 20 German cities. However, before that, they had to conduct a survey in each city to identify people who do not want to have their properties in the system. The result is that Google had to blur the buildings of around 244.000 residents.

So, what made Germany so afraid of Google Street View?

The pictures taken by Google can be related to Solove’s discussion regarding privacy. The majority of the photos are about nothing other than buildings. However, some of them can raise the curiosity of people and, not barely, we can see those pictures being posted on Social Medias and, then, it is just a question of finding a connector. Individuals sunbathing in their gardens or naked inside their houses are usually the main targets, but we can also find pictures of crimes and unusual situations.

Naked man inside his car – Germany

Probably a naked man reading in his house (not everybody would stay naked in the porch) – Quebec

Stanford students sunbathing

Maybe Germans were afraid of this kind of things, but, perhaps, the discussion goes beyond this point. Journalists speculates that the strict behaviour when it comes to Internet and Privacy is a trace of the Third Reich, when people had their rights limited and the collection of data was often used against them.

However, Splittgerber has a better explanation. His idea does not exclude the fact that the Third Reich might have affected the view of Germans, but he does not touch this question. The author talks that the necessity of privacy laws is proportionally related to the increasing automation of data processing.  He emphasizes that it is not restricted to Germany, all the countries members of European Union are now creating privacy laws in order to control the power of “It, internet, and globalization”.

When it comes specifically to German, they created The German Federal Data Protection Act (BDSG in German), which was promulgated in 14 August 2009. The aim of the document is “to protect individuals against infringement of their right to privacy as the result of the handling of their personal data”.  In simple terms, the document talks about personal data processed by computers (automated processing systems), regulating all the possible results that the relation human-machine can generate.

The amendments proposed by BDSG are really strict and control all the aspects of personal data, from means of collecting to ways of processing and distributing the material.  One of the clauses states that personal data cannot be collected without the authorization of the owner. This and others regulations affect Google Street View directly, but it was not enough. In June, 2010, German prosecutors proposed a law that would be a clear response to Google Street View.

“The proposed German law would amend Germany’s Federal Data Protection Act to make it illegal to publish databases of street images linked to their geographic coordinates without first blurring faces and car registration plates in the images. It would also make it illegal to store the raw, unblurred image data for more than a month after first publication.” (Sayer)

The result of this new law is what we saw at the beginning: 244.000 people asked to have their images blurred when the program was just beginning its appearances in the streets of Germany. With all the critics and regulations, you can question yourself why Google Street View was not forbidden, but voluntarily left Germany?

Splittgerber explains that the BDSG gives a little space to anonymous data, thus, when Google Street View was blurring the face of people and any other mean of identification, Google was turning it anonymous data. However, the author also says:

“ […] one will often speak of “anonymized data,” but what is really being referred to is “pseudonomized data” where data is labeled (for example where a name is replaced by a number), but where the identity of the individual behind this label can be retrieved with reasonable efforts. Pseudonomized data is protected equally under the FDPA as normal personal data.” (Splittgerber, 9)

Consequently, Google Services in Germany would always be subjected to the interpretation of prosecutors, who would understand information as anonymized data or pseudonomized data and trace the fate of the company. Thus, they probably acted properly leaving the country before being obliged to do so.

Nevertheless, the German problem does not seem to have affected the project, Google Street View still active in a large territory, as the map below shows:

map

 Regarding privacy issues, they have a system where users can mark inappropriate content and they also affirm that all the images are taken on public property. Well, some of the images that we can find online are not really public and, thinking as an average user, what would you do if you had found “an interesting” picture when accessing Google Street View? Would you flag it or would you print and spread it out? So, what do you think about the future of features like Google Street View and our private lives?

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