Navigating Europe's Streets

Wednesday, October 7, 2009 | 6:02 PM

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In June we wrote a blog about our ongoing Street View conversations with the Article 29 Working Party (the group which brings together representatives from all 27 European Data Protection Authorities).

Just to recap, they had asked that we continue to give advance notice to the public before collecting any images. In addition, they had requested that we set reasonable time limits for keeping copies of the un-blurred images used to create Street View.

As background, we use technology to blur faces and license plates before publishing them on Street View. While our technology is state-of-the-art, it's not perfect and we sometimes mistakenly blur things that are useful or interesting like sign posts, statues, street names, store fronts (KFC's Colonel Saunders is probably our most blurred image!) and road signs (like a 'no entry' or 'no right turn' sign, which our technology apparently thinks are faces).

We keep these un-blurred images in our databases so we can build better products, for example by constantly improving our blurring technology so that it obscures more of the things it should and less of the things it shouldn't. We also announced today another way in which Street View data helps us make our maps better.

For example, we might need to read a street sign in a Street View image to make sure that the street is properly named on Google Maps. Similarly, we need to know if a street has 'no entry' signs, so that we don't give you bad driving directions.

Starting today, we will permanently blur images on our internal database within one year of their publication on Street View. This means that long term the only copy we keep will be the blurred version. In countries where Street View is already launched the year long retention period will start today.

We think one year strikes a reasonable balance between protecting people's privacy and our ability to reduce mistakes in blurring, as well as use the data we have collected to build better maps products. It's important to remember that European privacy laws allow for the retention of data, so long as it is for reasonable periods of time and the information itself is actually being used.

In addition, where someone specifically requests that we remove an image (even where that particular face or license plate is already blurred in the published version), we'll move those images to the front of the queue, and permanently blur those pictures in our records as quickly as possible. We're also announcing today that over the next few months we'll launch revamped websites in countries where we're driving and/or where Street View is already available. These sites will have additional information about the product, including more detail about where Street View cars are driving--now all we need is good weather so we can show off all the attractions we're photographing in their best light!

Finally, we continue to work on improving our blurring technology. It's good but we think we can make it even better and as we make improvements we'll roll them out globally so that users everywhere get to benefit from them.

Posted by Peter Fleischer, Global Privacy Counsel

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