The Law and Business of Social Media
January 06, 2012 - Privacy

Agreement Reached in Belgium on Google Street View Privacy Concerns

2010 and 2011 witnessed Google’s rollout of Street View, the search company’s mobile panoramic mapping service, in a number of European countries — but not without challenges to the Internet giant, which has had to enter into a variety of agreements with local European data protection regulators.  On the heels of clashes with data protection authorities over alleged unauthorized collection of WiFi data while recording images for Street View, Google’s popular service is now subject to a variety of conditions imposed by European authorities.

In January 2011, Belgium’s Commission for the Protection of Privacy, the country’s data protection authority, published a recommendation (available online in French and in Dutch) on mobile mapping services.  That recommendation explained that the Commission considers recorded images of individuals and other related property, such as car license plates and homes, to be personal data — and in some cases, even sensitive personal data, for example, images that show individuals near places of worship or medical centers.  The recommendation further stated that Google can legally collect and use this form of personal data on the basis of its legitimate interest in operating Street View; however, use of the data must be proportional, and limited to the provision of Google’s Street View service.

Street View launched in Belgium on November 23, 2011.  Google has agreed to pixellate/blur all individuals’ faces and all car license plates prior to online publication of its Belgian Street View images.  (Google reportedly began testing its face-blurring technology for Street View in 2008.)  Google has also agreed to operate an online optout service through which individuals can ask for their entire image to be blurred if they still consider themselves to be recognizable on the service, and can request that images of their real property or other assets be blurred as well.  Google is required to respond to such requests within a reasonable period of time.  Google’s explanation of “confidentiality” in Street View, as well as Google’s instructions on how to request that images be blurred, are available online in French, and the Commission has itself published a comprehensive list of FAQs for individuals about Google Street View and related privacy issues, available online in French and Dutch.

Google has reached a similar agreement (available online in German) with data protection authorities in Germany, where individuals’ faces are also blurred and an opt-out service is operated.  And in the Czech Republic, where Google was banned in September 2010 from recording Street View images, in May 2011 the data protection authority imposed a detailed list of requirements to which Google must adhere when it resumes its image-gathering, including obligations to lower the height of its Street View cameras, to inform municipal authorities when images of their offices or buildings are being recorded, and to launch an advertising and information campaign in Czech to inform the general public that photographs are being taken.

Some non-EU countries are moving in a similar direction as well.  Israel recently decided to permit Street View, subject to a variety of conditions that include obligations for Google to provide an online opt-out mechanism, to publish information about the service in newspapers and online and to prominently mark its Street View cars.  Reportedly, those conditions would also permit Israeli citizens to file civil litigation against Google in Israel.