Germany's love-hate relationship with Google Street View
Thousands of Germans have reportedly requested their homes be removed from Google Street View. Millions more, however, are already avidly using the program.
Allow Google to take a picture of your house. Or prepare to be wiped off the face of the map, indefinitely.Skip to next paragraph
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After years of wrangling between the search engine giant and the German government over privacy concerns, Google is allowing Germans to opt out of Street View by requesting that their home or property be "blurred" on the map. The blurring process corrupts raw data, meaning that a home cannot be un-blurred until next time one of Google's camera-equipped vehicles rolls around town.
"Once a person in Germany requests that their home be blurred, it is blurred permanently, even if a request is made to un-blur it. There are currently no plans to refresh the imagery," says Google spokesperson Kate Hurowitz.
Germany's 'unconscious fear'
To be sure, citizens of all 23 countries where Street View is available can at any time have their homes blurred, but Germany has been the map's most vocal opponent. Only Germans have been given the option to opt out of Street View before it appears online, and only German homes are permanently blurred.
"Germany has a long tradition of protecting privacy and personality rights (especially due to the very bad surveillance practices of the Nazi régime)," says Thomas Hoeren, a law professor at the University of Muenster's Institute for Information in Germany. "Therefore, the country has one of most restrictive data protection acts in the world. And of course these regulations have to be applied to Google and the collection of personal data by Google."
"But there is a deeper problem," he wrote by e-mail. "In Germany, there is an unconscious fear, a kind of transference regarding Google: Google is big, it is becoming bigger and bigger, it is intransparent."
Good snoopers don't want to be snooped on
According to Der Spiegel, at least 10,000 Germans have requested their homes be blurred on Street View since May 2009. Meanwhile, Google says that several hundred thousand Germans already use Street View every week, making Germany the program's biggest user of any country that isn't yet mapped. “Millions of Germans have already used Street View to explore other countries,” says Ms. Hurowitz.
Germans, it seems, want to see your home on Street View, but they don't want you seeing theirs. To put it another way, they want to be the snoopers and not the snoop-ies.
"People always want to see what they can see," says Professor Hoeren. "That has nothing to do with any 'German' mentality. But of course, all these persons would never allow others to intrude their privacy."
The deadline for Germans to request their home be blurred is Sept. 15, but removal requests will continue to be accepted and implemented after the maps go online in November. If even one apartment tenant requests removal, then the entire apartment building is blurred. Google has not yet tallied the number of requests for removal, according to Hurowitz, “but proportionate to the overall population of Germany it’s quite low.”
“It’s worth noting however that we’ve also received a number of letters from people [in Germany] asking to opt back in after they tried out Street View,” she adds. “Our hope is that once people know more and try it out for themselves they will understand how useful it is – for their local businesses, themselves, and for tourists visiting Germany.”
Despite the long-standing opt-out option, a number of German newspapers and officials cried foul this week after the California-based company said in statement on its German website Tuesday that by the end of 2010 it would add Germany's 20 largest cities to Street View.