As if it wasn’t annoying enough that Google’s Street View imagery is all out of date in Germany, privacy complaints have now forced Microsoft’s rival StreetSide service offline too.
As of yesterday, StreetSide doesn’t exist in Germany, although Microsoft’s saying it may only be a temporary measure. And when I say it doesn’t exist, I mean no-one in the world gets to see the StreetSide photos for Germany, and no-one in Germany gets to see the equivalent imagery for anywhere in the world.
A little history on this: when Google launched Street View in Germany in 2010, it had to give citizens there a chance to opt out by having the facades of their buildings blurred. After all, the Germans do privacy in a big way. However, Google got hundreds of thousands of these requests, all of which it had to process manually — while it can rely on automation to blur out people’s faces, that doesn’t work for buildings.
Almost certainly due to the cost of doing this (though Google has never confirmed the reason), last April the company simply gave up on taking new Street View pictures in Germany. But then Microsoft stepped into the breach with StreetSide.
It followed a similar consultation procedure to Google’s, inviting people to have their homes blurred out, and it launched the service late last year. It’s not as comprehensive as Street View, as Germany’s a big country (by European standards) and there’s a lot of driving still to be done… but at least it’s up-to-date and playing by the rules, right?
We have learned that there are a limited number of customers in Germany who have raised concerns about their blurring requests,” Microsoft Germany spokesman Thomas Baumgärtner said in a statement. “As we take privacy and data protection of our customers very seriously, we decided to take down the StreetSide Beta service in Germany, while evaluating these individual cases and working on a solution.”
So this time it’s not even a matter of data protection authorities getting involved; it’s a “limited” number of individuals.
Privacy vs utility
Like other forms of search, street imagery is one of those web services that’s so useful it’s become near-indispensable. If you’re flat-hunting or looking for holiday accommodation, it tells you how upscale or rough the neighbourhood is in advance. If you know where a shop is located but you can’t remember what it’s called, you can simply zoom in and remind yourself, then look it up online. I certainly know I do this when I want to place a take-out order at a nearby restaurant.
But in Germany, all the Google Street View imagery is out of date (as I was reminded recently when I realised my local Indian restaurant had changed ownership and name in the last year). StreetSide was promising an alternative, but now that may be scuppered too.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m a strong advocate of privacy and I think it should be defended online — after all, what you give up there you can’t get back later. But this is ridiculous.
If you can walk down a street and view a building’s frontage, I see no reason why you shouldn’t be able to do the same in a virtualized environment. Street View and StreetSide don’t give you a key to the front door; they just tell you what’s where.
And that, surely, is the point of maps.