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Europe’s thumb in Google Maps’ eye

The good folk of Broughton don’t take kindly to being photographed without permission. Just ask Google.

When the search-engine giant sent one of its specially equipped cars to take pictures of the village for its Street View feature, residents swung into action. They stopped the car in its tracks, called the police and quizzed the bewildered driver for nearly two hours before letting him go.

“I don’t think this guy anticipated how angry people would get,” said Edward Butler-Ellis, 28. “We didn’t stand there with pitchforks or anything and block the road with bales of hay, but obviously people were agitated. . . . A car with a pole with a camera on top of it causes suspicions.”

Such suspicions are being raised across Europe as Google proceeds with its ambitious project to document Earth at the ground level. Through Street View, the company offers 360-degree images of roads, landscapes and buildings (including, probably, your own home) to go along with its popular Google Maps function.

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Privacy concerns, however, have delayed or disrupted the program’s launch in countries throughout Europe, where, in general, stricter laws on privacy and online data apply than in the United States.

In May, Greece’s privacy watchdog ordered Google to stop collecting images until it satisfied questions on how long the information would be stored. German regulators too have seized on similar concerns and demanded stronger measures to guard against any infringement of privacy.

Last month, Switzerland became the latest to put a check on Street View after a short-lived debut in the Alpine country. A few days into its launch, Swiss authorities told Google to take the feature off-line until certain conditions could be met, including better blurring of the faces of bystanders caught on camera.

The issues raised in Switzerland echo those elsewhere: people’s fears of being photographed in embarrassing or ambiguous circumstances, of having private spaces spied on and of not knowing how the published images might be used by strangers with Internet connections -- perhaps for nefarious purposes such as blackmail or burglary.

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“We received many complaints from private individuals,” Hanspeter Thuer, the Swiss federal data-protection commissioner, said in a telephone interview. “In some cases, individuals complained that the cameras saw into their gardens.

Others complained that they had to justify themselves because the photographs on Google Street View were seen by the public.”

In one image, a married Swiss politician was photographed with a blond who was not his wife, which forced him to explain publicly that the woman was his secretary. In another case, a Street View image was reprinted in a newspaper, and “as a result, a restaurant owner had to explain how he was photographed in a known drug-dealing area,” Thuer said.

“Imagine that someone is photographed as they just happen to walk past a sex shop, or if someone enters a hospital. Privacy is not protected well enough,” he said.

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Google says that Street View breaches no laws and that the company works hard with data-protection regulators to make sure the program enjoys official sanction wherever it operates.

Since its unveiling in 2007, Street View has expanded to cities, towns and villages around the world, in such countries as Britain, Sweden and the Czech Republic. Google recently announced that it was adding Portugal and Taiwan to the list.

Privacy concerns have dogged the program from the start. In Japan, the company agreed to re-shoot all its photos after numerous complaints that the original ones peeked into people’s yards. The Pentagon forbade photos of U.S. military bases.

Kay Oberbeck, chief spokesman for the company’s operations in Germany, Switzerland and Austria, said that Street View’s suspension in Switzerland came as a surprise after a “really long history of discussions” between Google and Thuer’s office.

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The company has promised to improve the technology that automatically scrambles people’s faces and car license plates in the uploaded image.

“The blurring technology is very, very effective and catches most faces and license plates in the millions of pictures we take,” Oberbeck said. “We give everybody the opportunity to inform us of any problematic image they might see, and usually it is taken down within hours.”

Google will also publish more detailed schedules and itineraries of its Street View cars, to forewarn residents of when the cameras are coming, Oberbeck said.

A larger issue, however, has yet to be resolved: how long the raw data, with the original, undoctored images, will be stored on Google’s central servers. The company is discussing the issue with a Europe-wide task force on data protection, which wants as short a retention period as possible.

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So does Butler-Ellis.

“I’m sure that Google has made every safeguard in the world possible to keep this information relatively secure,” the Broughton resident said. “But if information gets in the wrong hands . . . you lose this sense of personal freedom. You lose this sense of liberty that this country is supposed to be built on.”

Never mind that Britons are already among the most watched people on the planet, subject to the unblinking gaze of security cameras in all sorts of public spaces. But having one’s home photographed and then posted on the Web is a step too far, Butler-Ellis said.

When the Google car trundled down his street in April, he and other residents of the snug village about an hour’s drive north of London were already jittery from a rash of burglaries. Who knew what the car with its high-mounted camera was up to? What if it caught images of loose window frames, or expensive belongings in someone’s living room?

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Burglars “are very organized now. They’re not stupid,” Butler-Ellis said.

“They do a reconnaissance of the area, and this will help them do that.”

The reward for Broughton’s vigilance is that the community does not appear on Google Street View in Britain.

But there was an unintended consequence: After residents took their stand, news crews flocked to Broughton -- cameras in hand, snapping photos and recording footage that was broadcast throughout the rest of the country.

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henry.chu@latimes.com

Special correspondent Maria De Cristofaro in Rome contributed to this report.


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