Google is taking steps in several European countries to undo possible privacy violations caused by its Street View cars. In the United Kingdom, the company will delete Wi-Fi data it accidentally collected, and in Germany it released Street View imagery with a promised blurring process.
The data deletion in the U.K. will occur within the next nine months, according to Deputy Information Commissioner David Smith. He noted that the government will not be conducting further inquiries, and there was no indication any information had fallen into the wrong hands.
Blurring Available 'Everywhere'
The images released in Germany demonstrate a blurring process that obscures properties whose owners object to the service. An earlier demonstration of the process was flawed in that it partially blurred adjacent properties, and it allowed iPhone and iPad users to see the properties clearly for a short time before the blurring took place.
On Google's Lat Long Blog, which covers news from the Google Earth and Maps team, Product Manager Andreas Tuerk said the blurring tool is now being rolled out "everywhere Street View is available for all new removal requests." People can request the blurring through the Report a Problem tool.
Of the many countries that have initiated investigations into possible privacy violations by Street View vehicles, Germany has arguably been the toughest, and it's the only one where residents can opt out of Street View before the imagery becomes publicly available. But Germany investigators, notably those in Hamburg, haven't closed the book on possible violations.
As it turns out, Google's office in Munich is blurred out, possibly as the result of a request by other occupants of the building. According to news reports, the company has received requests to opt out via blurring from about three percent of the properties in the German cities in which Street View has captured data.
But some of the government investigations are beginning to wind down. In October, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission sent a two-page letter to the search giant saying it was ending its inquiry into privacy violations by Street View vehicles.
'Steps in the Right Direction'
The FTC cited recent efforts by Google to increase its vigilance on privacy issues. These include the appointment of a new director of privacy with authority across both engineering and product management, enhanced core training for staffers, a new information security awareness program, and new processes for internal compliance procedures.
But there are still inquiries by the attorneys general in a number of states in the U.S., as well as at least seven class-action lawsuits. Investigations have also been launched in Ireland, Italy, France, Spain, Australia and other countries.
The controversy stems primarily from the collection of private wireless data by Google vehicles, which have ridden down streets worldwide to collect photos for use on the Street View application within Google Maps. Google said about 600GB of data from 30 countries was mistakenly collected. Some countries, such as Germany, are also protesting the photography.
The flood of publicity about the Street View investigations, plus other privacy issues such as the brouhaha and recent settlement in a class-action suit over privacy violations in its social-networking program Buzz, could tar Google's reputation. This comes as the company is trying to build a bigger presence in the corporate world.
Laura DiDio, an analyst with Information Technology Intelligence Corp., said that, while it's "hard to say definitively" that these privacy controversies have hurt Google's reputation in the enterprise, "it certainly will give pause to some CTOs" and others involved in making IT decisions.
She said Google's actions to remedy its approach toward privacy "are steps in the right direction," but she expects to see "more explicit assurances" by the company, especially in the next 12 months, to counter any doubts that enterprises might have.