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Google's Street View cleared by privacy watchdog

Google's Street View service has received the blessing of UK privacy watchdog the Information Commissioner, who has said that the safeguards Google has put in place for people's privacy are 'adequate'.01 Aug 2008

The Street View service works by taking photographs of a city's streets and publishing them together so that they form a kind of photo-map of a city. It has raised privacy concerns because people are identifiable in the photos.

Google, though, has always said that it will change the service according to the privacy laws of the countries in which it operates. Cameras gathering data for the service have been spotted for the first time on UK streets in recent weeks.

"We are satisfied that Google is putting in place adequate safeguards to avoid any risk to the privacy or safety of individuals, including the blurring of vehicle registration marks and the faces of anyone included in Streetview images," said a statement from the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO).

Google has piloted face and vehicle number plate blurring technology on photos of Paris streets. It said that this will make it difficult to avoid identifying people. The service also lets individuals who feel they are identifiable and do not want to appear on the service to complain and have the image taken down.

"Although it is possible that in certain limited circumstances an image may allow the identification of an individual, it is clear that Google are keen to capture images of streets and not individuals," said the ICO. "Further there is an easy mechanism by which individuals can report an image that causes them concern to Google and request that it is removed."

"Images are not 'real time' and there is a delay between taking an image and its publication so that it could not be used to make decisions about an individual's current whereabouts," it said.

Struan Robertson, editor of OUT-LAW.COM and a technology lawyer with Pinsent Masons, has previously said that the legal issues are academic.

"The Data Protection Act is irrelevant to Google unless people can be identified in the scenes. There will be some cases where the blurring technology misses a face, but that's not a reason to shut down the service. These people can complain to Google if they're upset by the image and they can have the photos removed. If they've suffered damage and distress as a consequence of the photographs, they could sue," he said.

Google is being sued in the US over the service. A couple has said that the photographs of their house on Street View invaded their privacy. Google responded to the court this week, saying that there is no such thing as an absolute right to privacy.

"Today's satellite image technology means that even in today's desert, complete privacy does not exist," said the suit, according to documents hosted at The Smoking Gun.