Google strikes deal with Czech privacy watchdog over Street View

Google Street View

Google will continue expanding its Street View application in the Czech Republic after it agreed to meet several conditions required by the country’s data privacy watchdog. These include lowering the height of Street View cameras as well as a promise to swiftly deal with privacy complaints from the public. The US internet company, which has already made most of Prague and several other Czech cities available in Street View, said they would resume the project in the coming months.

In 2009, the Czech Republic became the eighth European country where Google Street View became available. The initial coverage included Prague along with seven smaller towns in Central Bohemia, as well as the country’s major D1 motorway. The feature allows people to browse through panoramic photographs taken at street level.

But last September, the country’s Office for Personal Data Protection effectively banned Google from expanding the service when it rejected its request to register as an entity allowed to collect private and personal data. The Czech privacy data watchdog said Google’s cameras took pictures that exposed more details than normally visibly from the street. The authorities also complained that the car-mounted cameras, positioned at 2.7 metres above ground, were too high which made it possible to look behind fences and into private homes.

But the privacy watchdog and Google agreed that they would address these concerns. On Wednesday, their consultations came to fruition when Google was granted its licence after it agreed to several conditions.

Google Street View car, photo: Uri Sharf, CC 2.0 license
Google will lower the 2.7 metre-high cameras by at least 30 cm; their special cars will avoid certain areas, such as schools, at times when pupils gather in front of them, and will come back later. The company also promised to inform local authorities that mapping will take place in their districts, and to deal with any complaints within 48 hours.

These concessions satisfied the data protection agency but ITC expert Karel Wolf says that in practical terms, the deal does not mean much.

“I don’t think this is any major change. Although Google agreed to lower the height of the cameras in order to be allowed to continue imaging for Street View, they in fact argued that this will bring the cameras closer to the pedestrian level which could make people’s faces easier to recognize. And this is of course something many people might object to.”

The internet firm also complied with several administrative requirements, establishing a responsible entity for the EU territory, and put up a website with information on the project in the Czech language.

Google Street View faces similar problems in a number of countries. In Switzerland, for example, the company recently threatened to shut down the service completely if they are made to provide “absolute guarantees” of anonymity for those photographed. However, complaints that cameras on Google’s cars are too high are quite unusual, according to Karel Wolf.

Google Street View
“It’s interesting that besides the Czech Republic, the only other country that complained about the height of the cameras was Japan. There it of course makes sense because Japanese people are generally shorter and their buildings are smaller, so the cameras really looked into people’s privacy much more.”

The Czech branch of Google declined comment on the deal. In a statement, the company said they welcomed the decision, and would resume mapping Czech towns and cities for Street View in the summer months.