In the face of ethical concerns, Google is considering changes to its Street View Google Maps feature that would protect the privacy of those it photographs.
When Street View is rolled out in Europe, Google will alter Street View photos to make sure that faces and license plate numbers are no longer visible, and the company is also thinking about doing the same with the U.S. version of the product, said Jane Horvath, senior privacy counsel with Google.
Developed by Immersive Media, Street View lets users click on a city street and then see a panoramic photograph of the area. The pictures are taken by special 360-degree cameras roof-mounted on Volkswagen Beetles that cruise around town, constantly snapping photographs. The photos are often so clear that people on the street can be identified.
Soon after its May launch, photographs of scantily clad women and men apparently entering adult book stores or strip clubs appeared, and privacy advocates complained that the Street View was invasive. Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney Kevin Bankston was photographed by the service and was among those who complained.
Google responded by creating a way for people to remove their photos, but in many other countries the company will have to take the more aggressive privacy measures. "In other jurisdictions ... like Canada and the E.U., when we launch our product there, we'll be under an obligation to ensure that faces are not recognizable, nor are license tags," Horvath said at a Thursday discussion at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. "As we launch those products we will be thinking within our product teams whether this is something that we'd like to do within the U.S. also."
Street View maps are available for 15 U.S. cities, including San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, and Miami.
In the U.S., Google can legally publish photographs taken in public places without securing permission from people who happen to pop up in the shots, but this practice violates privacy laws in many other countries.
And even if it's legal, some may still be uncomfortable with the photographs, Horvath admitted.
"It's sort of that 'ick' feeling that something makes you feel uncomfortable," she said. "Our products are not static, and we're always open to changing them to make sure our users feel comfortable and trust us with their information."
"I think this calls into question the whole idea of whether privacy is something that needs to be regulated by law or if there's this other concept of privacy that we need to look at, which is the right to autonomy."