Protecting Privacy Hamburg Reaches Deal with Google on Street View

After numerous citizen complaints, Hamburg says it has reached a tentative deal with Google limiting the scope of its Street View service, which offers ground-level photos of city streets around the world. The service is highly controversial in Germany, despite not yet having launched here.

Internet search giant Google has reached a tentative deal with the government official in the city of Hamburg responsible for data privacy issues surrounding the company's controversial Street View project. The official, Johannes Caspar, said Google had responded to an ultimatum on the firm placed by the city-state to address 12 potential violations of German data privacy laws.

Google Street View is controversial due to its linking of ground-level images of streets (complete with buildings and monuments) to its comprehensive Google Maps. In Germany and other European countries -- where privacy and data protection laws are far stricter than in the United States -- the project has proven highly controversial.

Google Street View is already available for other parts of Europe, allowing a user to take a virtual tour of the streets of Paris or London's Piccadilly Circus, for example. It's simple to operate: Users just drag a symbol of a small yellow man over the desired street. A street-view image then opens, allowing a 360-degree view of homes, front yards, cars, people and whatever other objects were captured when the camera-equipped cars dispatched by Google travelled through the area.

And some of the images tell more than Google anticipated. Several months ago, the service drew controversy in Britain when a woman divorced her husband after finding evidence on Street View that he had cheated on her. An image on the service showed his car parked in front of the home of his mistress.

In Germany, Hamburg isn't the only city to have expressed its grief against Google over Street View. In Schleswig-Holstein in northern Germany, the state's top data protection official, Thilo Weichert, has described the way Google collects data for the project as "horrible." Last October, a homeowner in Molfsee, a suburb of the German port city of Kiel, saw one of black Opel Astra cars the company is using to take street images in German cities and complained to local officials, sparking community outrage over the search engine's ambitious and, they felt, prying endeavor. The state parliament even took up the issue. Communal resistance to the ambitious projects also spread to other German cities like Hamburg. As a result of the protest, Google initially suspended its work in northern Germany. But now it is continuing to busily take snapshots of street scenes in cities like Frankfurt, Hamburg, Bremen and Kiel.

Pixillate or Perish

In Hamburg, the city had issued an ultimatum on Monday that it must adhere to data protection demands or face an injunction against its project, which it would like to complete globally. In a letter to both Google Germany and Google in the United States, the state official in charge of data protection ordered the company to submit a written guarantee that it would adhere to the rules by Wednesday. Hamburg officials said a deal would not be finalized until Google's US headquarters provided a written pledge to adhere to the rules.

Hamburg is demanding that the faces of people captured in the images are pixilated to the point they cannot be recognized before they are used or archived. It wants the same for license plates and other potentially identifiable private data. And it wants the company to delete any images of homes if asked to by owners -- both online and in any data it saves.

On Wednesday, Caspar praised Google for meeting the deadline, and said that planned talks in the coming week would focus on written assurances that Google would delete any raw data that has not been pixilated and has already been transferred to the US.

Hamburg data-protection officials said numerous residents and communities had issued complaints in recent weeks about Google Street View, with at least two upset citizens calling by phone each day.

dsl -- with wire reports