Google 'Street View' Under Scrutiny in Switzerland

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: Google Street View is considered a pretty useful tool to see images of a city at street level; but the mapping service shows lots of details about houses and people, and in some places that poses many privacy issues, especially in Switzerland. Tough data protection laws there make it illegal to post photographs of private citizens on the internet without their consent. Google threatened to shutdown its services after a federal court requested the internet giant make changes. Eliane Schmid is a spokeswoman for the Swiss Federal Data Protection and Information Commissioner.

Eliane Schmid: What we want and what the court decided again this March is that all the faces and all the license plates on the pictures of street view have to be blurred.

Werman: Well, I mean I understand the concern. If I type in my home address on Google you see my next door neighbor cleaning up garbage on the sidewalk and he's not wearing a shirt. His face is blurred, but, I mean Google says it blurs 98% of faces. Is that not acceptable? You want more?

Schmid: Well, it's Google that says they blur 98%. What we found, we've checked and basically every neighborhood we've been checking, within 10-15 minutes we found loads of faces and license plates that were not blurred or not sufficiently blurred. So, with doubt it's 98%.

Werman: Right, and was there one event of one kind of mapping on Street View that brought this to your attention, you noticed something is not right here?

Schmid: No, it was actually when Street View was put online, and within a few days we received 100s of complaints of citizens and people living in Switzerland.

Werman: When was that?

Schmid: In August-September 2009.

Werman: Okay, so...

Schmid: Then we issued recommendations to Google. Google denied fulfilling them, which is when in November 2009 we took them to court.

Werman: Apparently, the Swiss Federal Data Protection and Information Commissioner wants even more though than just blurring. They want skin color blurred, clothes blurred, especially near sensitive establishments like homeless shelters and hospitals. That seems like a lot.

Schmid: Well, the point is that according to Swiss data protection law, it is not okay if someone takes a picture of me and puts in on the internet, in his Facebook account, without asking my consent. I can sue you if you do that.

Werman: What do you make of Google's threat to shutdown its Street View services?

Schmid: Well, that's what they are threatening at the moment. This is certainly not what we are aiming at. We are aiming at the protection of the people concerned.

Werman: I mean you've received a lot of complaints, but I'm just wondering what do most Swiss people think about this issue? I mean it's a useful tool.

Schmid: As far as we can tell the population is divided 50/50. It seems to be the way in many European countries. Now, this really is a question if it's the Swiss parliament and the Swiss administration that tell us what the law is, or if it's big international companies that tell us what the law is -- you'll find the answer to this question yourself I think.

Werman: Eliane Schmid, spokeswoman for the Swiss Data Protection and Information Commissioner, thanks very much for speaking with us.

Schmid: Thank you, too.