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Swiss court says Google's Street View breaks privacy rules

Google ordered to manually blur faces and car number plates

A Swiss court has ruled that Google is breaching citizens' right to privacy with its Street View service and should take greater steps to obscure people caught by its cameras, according to court documents.

The Federal Administrative Court made the ruling on March 30 following complaints from Switzerland's data protection commissioner, Hanspeter Thuer.

The court took the view that Google's business interests did not outweigh the rights of the individuals over their own image. It ordered the internet giant to implement further measures to ensure anonymity before publishing faces and number plates captured in Switzerland on Street View, which came online there in August 2009.

Google currently uses automatic blurring technology to obscure people's faces and vehicle number plates and says that it is 99 percent effective. Swiss citizens can also request additional blurring of an image via a link on Street View.

In its ruling, the court said that Google must manually obscure or blur identifying features rather than relying exclusively on the automated technology, particularly in the vicinity of "sensitive establishments" such as women's shelters, retirement homes, prisons, schools, courts and hospitals.

Peter Fleischer, Google's global privacy counsel, said the company was considering its options to appeal.

"We are very disappointed because Street View has proved to be very useful to millions of people as well as businesses and tourist organisations," Fleischer said. "More than one in four of the Swiss population has used it since the service launched in Switzerland."

Other privacy concerns over Street View have been raised in various European countries. Last month, France fined Google for collecting private data from open Wi-fi networks. In Israel there are worries that the service could be used to aid terrorist attacks.

Criticism also arose in Germany. In response, Google allowed German citizens in certain areas to request that their properties be blurred before Street View went live. Germany was the only country in which Google gave people that option. The company received about 250,000 opt-out requests.

But not everyone is so concerned.

"I just can't understand why, in a knowledge-based country like Switzerland, a tremendously useful and interesting tool like Google Street View is being targeted by our legal system," said Christian Wasserfallen, a Free Democratic Party member of the Swiss National Council. "We run the risk of disconnecting our nation from innovative developments."

Daniel Luggen, director of a local tourism authority for Zermatt, said the ruling marked a step back into a digital stone age. Zermatt Tourism uses Street View to show its ski pistes and countryside to potential tourists on the Internet.

"The Swiss court's decision against Street View in Switzerland is worrying, to say the least," Luggen said. "The reality is that this judgement is also contrary to the wishes of millions of international web users."

See also: Google fined €100k for collecting Wi-Fi data


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