Google working on Canuck Street View

(This is a story I wrote for based on an interview with Peter Fleischer, Google’s global privacy czar — I’m posting it here for those who may have missed it. Click here if you want to listen to the entire interview)

The man in charge of Google’s privacy policy says the Internet giant is working on a version of its controversial Street View service that won’t breach Canadian privacy rules, after federal privacy commissioner Jennifer Stoddart raised concerns about the service earlier this month.

Peter Fleischer, Google’s global privacy counsel, said in an interview from Montreal on Monday the company understands Canada has “struck a different balance” than the U.S. has in terms of what is public and what is private, and that Google is sensitive to those differences.

Street View, which has data available from seven U.S. cities but does not yet include any Canadian sites, is a tool that shows users street-level photographs of the addresses they are searching for. Some of the photos, which are being taken by a fleet of cars belonging to Immersive Media of Calgary, show individuals entering adult-video stores and urinating in public.

In comments earlier this month, Ms. Stoddart said that she had contacted Google and Immersive Media to express her concerns that taking photos of people — even in public — for such a service might violate Canadian privacy laws.

The United States has “a long tradition of saying that it is legal and appropriate to take pictures from public spaces and publish them,” Mr. Fleischer said. “But clearly, we’re aware that different countries around the world strike a different balance between this idea of a public place on the one hand and people’s expectation of privacy.”

In the United States, photographers can take pictures of people in public places unless a court decides the individual had a “reasonable expectation of privacy,” but Canadian law requires that the subject of a photo give their consent, unless it is being taken for “journalistic, literary or artistic purposes.”

The Google executive, who is Montreal for a meeting of international privacy experts this week, said that Google is working on a version of Street View that would make it difficult to identify individuals in photos, by using a lower resolution or by deliberately blurring faces and licence plates in the pictures that come from Immersive Media.

In the U.S. version of the service, Google allows anyone who doesn’t want their photo used to apply to have it removed from the Street View database.

Mr. Fleischer said the Internet company doesn’t have “an exact timeline” of when Street View might be available in Canada, but said Google is working on it now. Altering the quality of the photos “makes it a little harder for us [to launch Street View in Canada], because it takes a little more work,” he said.

Google’s privacy counsel said he was in Montreal to talk about the importance of creating a global policy on electronic privacy. Google has come under fire in the past for the data it keeps on individual Web traffic and search behaviour, and its acquisition of online ad firm Doubleclick has raised concerns about the amount of information the company will have.

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission is holding hearings in November that will look at online privacy standards, and the European Union is also looking at the issue of privacy after complaints were raised about Google’s Doubleclick purchase.

Mr. Fleischer said that Google is very interested in talking about online privacy standards, provided they apply to all companies equally. He says that some participants in the debate “have their own competitive goals, and are using a vocabulary of privacy” as a way of pursuing those goals.

Among the companies protesting Google’s acquisition of Doubleclick are Microsoft and Yahoo, two companies that also accumulate a large amount of information about the behaviour of Web surfers who use their products and websites.

“We are working with others to look at global privacy standards,” said Mr. Fleischer. “What are the appropriate privacy principles that should be applied to this space?”

The Google executive said that any rules should be applicable to all players in the search industry. “You don’t set a speed limit just for the cars built by one company,” said Mr. Fleischer, although he added that “if you drive a red Ferrari, people may look at you a little more.”

Mr. Fleischer said that the company was the first to make a number of changes to its policies after criticism from privacy advocates. For example, he says, Google was the first to reduce the amount of time it keeps personal search data to 18 months (data was previously kept indefinitely). Microsoft and Yahoo have since changed their policies as well.

Google has also changed the amount of time it keeps browser-based “cookies” or tracking data. Mr. Fleischer says that “30-year cookies had become commonplace” in the search industry, but the company has changed its policy so that they are now only kept on file for two years at the most.

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