Google has rolled out a new technology which automatically blurs any human face appearing in street-level photographs taken for use in its mapping services by its fleet of camera-mounted vehicles.
The blurring technology, which will be retrospectively applied to all existing Street View images and incorporated in all future releases of the popular mapping feature, is intended to mollify concerns about the potentially intrusive nature of the service.
Google will shortly previewed the face-blurring technology on the Street View images found on its Manhattan maps. Detail of the changes were announced on an official Google blog today.
The pedestrians and drivers snapped by Google now have their faces ensconced in a fuzz of anonymity – although some people could potentially still be identified by the clothes they wear.
Street View, which features on Google Maps and Google Earth, made its debut a year ago. The images provide a panoramic, ground level view of about 40 US cities and their surrounding suburbs.
Google Maps evolved from a company founded by two Danes and two Australians and the core team is based in Sydney.
And partly because of that link, it is understood that Australia will become the first country outside the US to get the feature when it is added to local maps and rolled out sometime before September.
A number of cars equipped with specially-mounted cameras capable of capturing the 360 degree images used in the process have been traversing the highways and streets of the nation since late last year.
“We’ll be incorporating face-blurring technology in the Australian and New Zealand versions of Street View,” Google Australia spokesman Rob Shilkin said.
It is understood that the Australian Street View maps will feature a substantial number of cities, regional centres and even smaller towns. In addition, many country roads have been photographed in a move that will give a unique view the outback.
Most of the photographs are innocuous. They show people standing by the side of the road and going about their lives. But in a several cases, people have been shown doing strange things or caught at an odd moment. On some narrow streets, the cameras have even snapped people through the windows of their homes.
The internet search and advertising company has taken steps to zap any image found to offend or likely offend. Among those removed have been pictures of people relieving themselves by the side of the road, people being interviewed or arrested by police, people entering establishments such as strip clubs or adult bookstore and some images depicting people in various states of undress.
In the year since the Google Maps Street View launch, Google says it has only had to respond to a handful of privacy complaints.
In addition to the facial blurring, Australian Street View images are expected to be published in low resolution that will obscure details such as car licence plates.
Google has been working with the Australian Privacy Foundation (APF) to ensure that the mapping images do not overstep local sensibilities about privacy. It is also consulting with organisations which may be wary about giving away too much detail regarding their physical location. In the US, for instance, there have been concerns raised by abortion clinics on behlaf of their patients.
“Google has certainly taken some steps in the right direction,” said Dr Dan Svantesson, the chair of the APF’s internet subcommittee and an assistant professor at Bond University’s faculty of law. “But there is certainly more than can be done.”
He said that while image blurring would go a long way towards resolving a great majority of the potential privacy issues, there was room – for instance – to improve the complaints and take down process.
Street View images are now pored over by legions of spotters around the world who look for oddities and anything else that is likely to embarrass or amuse. A number of blogs and websites now specialise in news about Street View.
While there is no strict business behind Street View, the free service is being used by real estate agents, small businesses and tourist authorities tospruik their services and offerings.
Google is well-known for creating services with no obvious commercial application. The idea is that, down the track, a way might be found to have the service earn its keep.