Google’s Street View product has been criticized by privacy advocates since its very inception, including various posts on this blog. Two years after its release, Google continues to face challenges over its collection and treatment of potentially personally-identifiable images of people in public spaces.
Most recently, Germany has noted that Google’s (reluctant) blurring of faces and license plates is not enough, demanding that the original images themselves be permanently removed from their databases. Google argues that the original images are necessary to help the system “learn” how to automatically blur better in the future. This sounds like a valid need from an engineering perspective, but the key dilemma here is how to manage the balance between engineering and ethics. Just because the engineers want to have access to the original images doesn’t mean they should remain.
These are difficult decisions to make, but we’re here to help…
Meanwhile, I’ll take this opportunity to reiterate what I’ve previously suggested Google do to alleviate some of the privacy concerns with Street View:
- Make use of their own facial recognition technology to automatically scan the Street View image database to identify and blur all faces, thereby protecting privacy and differentiating themselves from Microsoft’s offering. This should be done in all Street View products, not just the Canadian version.
- Make reporting inappropriate images easier by placing a specific “report this image” link on each image screen, not just a generic “help” link.
- Think harder about privacy in public, and recognize that just because a random person can take another random person’s picture in public doesn’t mean there’s no difference in having a similar image available on Google.