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Censored Street Views: Google Bows to German Data Privacy Demands

The dispute between Google and the data protection office in Hamburg over the company's Street View service has been settled. Google has agreed to erase identifiable raw data depicting people, property or cars upon request.

After weeks of discussions, Google and Hamburg data protection authorities have reached a compromise regarding the company's Street View service. Although it has yet to be launched in Germany, Street View -- which offers users a chance to view detailed ground-level images of city streets -- has been causing a stir in several German cities amid privacy protection concerns.

Johannes Caspar, head of the Hamburg regional office for data protection, announced Wednesday that the California Internet company has accepted the city-state's data privacy demands and will erase identifiable raw data depicting people, property, or cars upon request.

"Google took advantage of the opportunity and agreed to all aspects of our suggested compromise," Caspar said. The agreement will force Google to change the way it creates Street View in Germany.

When gathering footage for the new service, Google sends out cars equipped with 360-degree cameras, whose multiple lenses can simultaneously capture images from all directions. The images are then linked to the Google Maps service, allowing users to see individual streets (including everything in or along them) from a pedestrian's perspective.

Faces and car license plates are blurred with automatic software when the images are published online -- however, these identifying characteristics usually remain in the company's raw data. The company has argued that it needs the raw images in order to improve its face-recognition software.

The company will make an exception for Germany. In the future, Google will promptly erase any identifiable image of people, property, or cars from all of its raw data upon request. People can file objections before or after the images are published and the German Street View Web site will include a link where objections can be registered. The company has previously removed published images of identifiable individuals but the agreement to erase raw data is a first.

The Street View project has caused controversy across Europe -- where laws ensuring privacy and data protection are far stricter than in the United States. Last week, Google settled on a compromise with European data protection authorities: In the future, the company will publicly announce the routes of their camera cars before they begin filming.

Street View launched in the US in 2007 and has since expanded to over 100 cities worldwide, including several European capitals. Nothing else stands in the way of launching Street View in Germany before the end of the year, Google spokesman Kay Oberback said on Wednesday.

In addition to discussions of privacy concerns, Google's roving cameras have caused the occasional scandal. After launching in Britain, Street View made headlines when a woman divorced her husband over an image she saw -- his car parked outside the home of his mistress.

jcm -- with wire reports

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