Global search engine colossus Google has been warned by the EU data protection chief that the "Street View" feature on its Google Maps service could run up against European privacy laws if it launches in EU countries.
Street View allows users of Google's online map service to have a full-colour, 360-degree look around city streets. Users can digitally walk up and down the virtual street, which is built from composites of photographs taken by roaming Google cars with roof-mounted cameras.
Peter Hustinx, the EU data protection supervisor, told reporters while presenting his annual data protection report on Thursday (15 May) that if Google launched such a feature in Europe, the company would first have to comply with European privacy legislation, which in many member states is stricter than in the United States.
"I would encourage Google to think about how to do this," Mr Hustinx said, AP reports. "Making pictures on the street is in many cases not a problem, but making pictures everywhere is certainly going to create some problems. I'm quite sure they are aware of this."
The service, already launched for many US and Canadian cities, has wowed users, who report that Street View allows them to digitally make a trip to cities they have always wanted to visit.
At the same time, privacy concerns have arisen, as people walking down a street are also captured by the photographs. They are not so worried about being photographed visiting the Empire State Building, but rather when photographed entering an X-rated cinema or urinating in public.
"Complying with European data protection law is going to be part of their business success or failure," Mr Hustinx added. "If they would ignore it, it is likely to lead to [court] cases, and I think they would be hit hard."
The company has not launched the service in Europe yet, although it has announced plans to do so next year, and Google cars snapping away photos of the vias and rues of Rome and Paris have already been spotted.
The company responded to the EU official's concerns by saying it is perfecting face-blurring technology.
"We're taking this opportunity to test our new face-blurring technology on the busy streets of Manhattan," the company said in blog posting.
"This effort has been a year in the making—working at Street View-scale is a tough challenge that required us to advance state-of-the-art automatic face detection, and we continue working hard to improve it as we roll it out for our existing and future imagery."
DNA databases lack safeguards
Separately, the data protection official warned in his report that EU rules agreed by ministers last June which allow police to check DNA databases across all member states lack the appropriate privacy safeguards.
"In some cases it will be a nightmare not only for citizens but also law enforcement authorities... What might have been done responsibly has not been done well," said Mr Hustinx, according to Irish state broadcaster RTE.
"Tourists could find themselves suspects in a cross-border criminal investigation merely for having had a drink at a motorway service station."
Last year, EU member states agreed to allow their DNA databases to be shared across the union within three years.
However, the safeguards also agreed at the time do not take into account variations in national legislation, and are too complex to operate effectively, said Mr Hustinx.