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Google’s cars return to German roads, but not for Street View

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Yesterday, when I was walking down to my local Berlin food market at lunchtime, I saw a child pointing at a strange but familiar vehicle rolling down the road. It looked like a Google Street View car – which was a surprise, as Google hasn’t been collecting Street View imagery in Germany since 2011.

As I subsequently learned, [company]Google[/company] did indeed put its cars back on German roads this week. However, it’s only using them to keep Google Maps up to date, ensuring that the service is showing the correct street names and routing information. Street View remains off the menu.

Germans can be a tad touchy about privacy, and many objected to the rollout of Street View in the country. Even after Google started automatically blurring faces and number plates, it was forced to give Germans the option of having their houses blurred out as well – something hundreds of thousands of people took the firm up on.

However, this was a costly business, with Google needing to hire temporary workers to manually blur out selected buildings. It also didn’t stop people trying to sue the U.S. company over alleged privacy infringement. So, in 2011, Google said it was giving up on Street View in Germany – the pre-existing images remain online, but they haven’t been updated in three years.

In a recent post, Google said its cars would be back on the road from the start of December in the following cities: Berlin, Hamburg, Munich, Cologne, Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Dusseldorf, Dortmund, Essen, Bremen, Leipzig, Dresden, Hanover, Nürnberg, Duisburg, Bochum, Wuppertal and Bielefeld.

The idea is to expand coverage to other regions of Germany in 2015. However, the post stressed:

We know there is great interest in our camera cars. They are the same cars that we used in the past to take images for Street View. In the coming journeys, we will only use the images to improve Google Maps, and we have no plans to release them.

As much of a privacy fan as I am, I’ve always found the German reaction to Street View to be somewhat over-the-top. If you can see a building façade from the street, I see no reason why it shouldn’t be shown online too, in what is frequently a very useful service.

With the images being so out of date now, they’re frequently useless if you’re trying to remember which restaurant it was you liked so much on that one street. The house-blurring technique that Google tried would also have annoying knock-on effects: If one person in an apartment block wanted the frontage obscured on Street View, everyone else would have to live with that too, like it or not.

Still, Google’s not the only one to find pain in trying to provide useful street imagery. Its Russian rival, [company]Yandex[/company], encountered an amusing conundrum when creating its version of Street View in Turkey. Yandex’s system also automatically blurs out faces, but Turkey is full of images of the statesman Kemal Ataturk, whose visage it is illegal to desecrate. That meant the Russian firm had to go through all of its street imagery to manually un-blur Ataturk’s face wherever they could find it.

5 Responses to “Google’s cars return to German roads, but not for Street View”

  1. Archivschützer

    German media says that even the unpublished pictures will be damaged by erroneous blurrings. I hoped that at least UNPUBLISHED pictures will survive this data protection craze. Now I still hope that the statement about permanent blurrings is false.

  2. “If you can see a building façade from the street, I see no reason why it shouldn’t be shown online too”

    This reflects a very American point of view and misses some key data protections that are in place in Germany. Having access to data, generally, is perfectly acceptable. You can certainly go take pictures of someones house. However, it is the aggregation and distribution of the data that is restricted by German data protection laws. Its a subtle thing, but it means that Germans have a much smaller risk of their computerized personal data form being exposed or abused. For example, the constant data breaches exposing personally identifiable information, private information and banking in formation in the United States is unheard of in Germany. They just do not have that problem, partially because of the data protection laws.

    Additionally, Street View is not all that usefull in Germany, compared to how usefull it is in the United States. Why? Because in Germany the road signage, street naming and address numbering system works really well and you can easily arrive at a destination, never having been there, with just the street address (eg it is easy to see the building/house numbers from the street). Contrast that to the United States where a street address sends you on a fishing expedition of having to loop back, finding you are on the wrong part of the street, etc. In the US we NEED to have a picture of what the outside of our destination looks like because its almost the only way to identify the place to know we have arrived.

  3. i fully agree. this is a stupid German issue about privacy and new technology. First of all everything new is bad. Our politics did also not get the great picture, they just repeated the gossip. And this is because of our so called independent media. They inform very one sided and did not mention the good things one could do with street view. They just raise one side, and obviously not the positive one. Then more and more people join in to criticize.
    I lived in the us for a couple of years and loved street view, as you can preview where you are going to. I was shocked, when i came back and saw Germany was a NO STREETVIEW area. Most other European countries are listed.

    Shame on you, Germany, you messed up again.

  4. theking2

    “If you can see a building façade from the street, I see no reason why it shouldn’t be shown online too”

    You are a tad naive here. It is quite a difference when someone is sitting in front of my house counting the number of windows or watching whats inside or the same thing happening online. I would notice the first and call law inforcment, I would not notice the first. Google is a company that makes money for its shareholders. There is nothing to stop them to sell information of poorly protected property to the highst bidder. In fact they already start doing so in the USoA

  5. Travis Johansen

    The differing perspectives on privacy remind me of the phrase “one mans trash is another mans treasure”. While we may think it’s normal to have a lower level of privacy, it’s important to remember that other people may have differing perspectives.
    In the states, we have equally crazy laws and government agencies that try to mandate all sorts of things about our personal lives. We just need to keep things in perspective before jumping to conclusions or judging others.
    Personally, I’d prefer somewhere that leans towards privacy than one that has vast oversteps including our beloved NSA.