Germans shrink from eye of Google Street View

Jeff Black, Helen Maguire

Berlin (dpa) – The impending online availability of Google’s novel Street View mapping technology for 20 of Germany’s largest cities has unleashed a wave of unease – in a country long wary of the power of those who hold information.

Street View is a 360-degree visual add-on to the Google Maps site, and allows the user to “walk through” city streets as if he or she were really there.

Millions of photographic images, in Germany’s case collected since 2008, have been seamlessly melded together to display street life in minute detail.

But for many Germans, and those concerned with protecting their privacy, this glimpse into the lives of others is one step too far.

“I think it is monstrous,” said prominent Berlin Green Party parliamentarian Hans-Christian Stroebele.

Stroebele, as well as representatives from across the political spectrum – including the Consumer Affairs Minister Ilse Aigner – said Thursday that they would use Google’s “opt-out” facility, and apply to have their homes “pixelated” beyond recognition.

Google already employs this technology to obscure the faces of people captured in public places, as well as car registration numbers. The technology is available in the US, Canada, Japan, most of Western Europe and parts of Australia and South Africa.

The company says it aims to go online with its German imagery – already held up because of privacy concerns – by the end of the year.

Although Street View exclusively shows what can already be seen from public places, even the presence of imagery of private property on the internet has touched a nerve.

“I do not want pictures of my private residence on the internet. I will opt out, and so far as it has anything to do with private property, I recommend that everyone else does the same,” said the liberal FDP Party’s data-protection spokeswoman Gisela Piltz.

Experts explain that Germany’s much more vehement reaction to Street View in comparison with other countries has to do with a deep, general suspicion of organisations that gather data on the individual, dating back to the totalitarian Nazi state and the surveillance culture of Communist East Germany.

“There’s a tradition of snitches and spies in German history, to put it mildly,” sociologist at Berlin’s Free University Frithjof Hager said. “That horror is in the blood.”

The rapid pace of technological development has led to “a very strong consciousness about data protection over the past ten or twenty years,” Green Party data-protection expert Christian Busold said.

Google itself calmly explains that Street View only shows what is already in the public domain, and that the application has many social benefits, from easing the process of house-hunting to checking out the “feel” of a hotel’s location, or simply arranging an exact meeting point for friends.

“It is a helpful and useful product,” said Eva Gengenbach, who works in the tourism industry.

“When I want to find something out, for example the location of hotels abroad, then I would gladly use it,” she said.

“It can be problematic, but overall I find it positive,” she said.

Laura Scott, a spokeswoman for Google’s European operations, says that usage figures for the basic Google maps technology generally jump by around 20 per cent in a country when Street View is introduced.

The company emphasizes that there has always been a policy of allowing people to remove their property, and Germany is actually an exception because residents have the chance to do so before the service goes online.

For some privacy campaigners in Germany however, these precautions are not enough. They would like to see the basic precept of the country’s data-protection law extended to Street View and similar applications.

“It’s a classic concept of data protection law that the affected person has to actively allow the saving of personal data. Here, that doesn’t apply,” Christian Busold said.

Residents in the 20 German cities where the service will be rolled out have until September 14 to submit their online requests to have their properties pixelated. Those without internet access have until September 21 to write in.

As the service goes online, curiosity may well compete with the nervousness.

“I would like to be able to look up other people, but don’t really want people to do it to me,” recruitment consultant Lars Schott said.