As Google Street View ramps up in Germany, Korea clamps down

Google today said its Street View program for Germany would launch in November. Ongoing privacy concerns have led South Korean police to raid the Street View offices in Seoul.

Jeremy Piper/AP
Google Australia previews its new Street View Trike at Taronga Zoo in Sydney, Jan. 25. Google Street View announced Tuesday that it had resolved a privacy row with Germany and would launch its mapping program in November.

Just as Google Street View announced Tuesday that it had resolved a privacy row with Germany and would launch its mapping program by the end of the year there, South Korean police were raiding the company's Seoul office on suspicion it was illegally gathering citizen's personal information.

Street View seems to have resolved one country's qualms, only to have another country step forward with its own.

Google's problems in Germany escalated in May, when authorities discovered that the Street View vehicles were collecting private data sent over unencrypted Wi-Fi networks, potentially including e-mails and passwords. Google said it was accidental. “Quite simply, it was a mistake,” Google said in a statement at the time.

Five countries challenging Google

To continue operating in Germany, Google agreed to accept requests (even in fax form) to have certain homes removed from the program, according to The Associated Press. Google also said all human faces and license plates would be automatically blurred. This will allow the California company to add 20 of Germany's largest cities to the Street View program in November, according the Associated Press.

Some of the pictures might be a bit out of focus. According to Der Spiegel, at least 10,000 Germans have already requested that their homes or properties be blurred.

Google's admission that it was collecting private Wi-Fi data has set off alarms in other countries, including France, Italy, Spain, and South Korea. Korean police on Tuesday seized computers at Google's Seoul office to investigate whether the company had stolen private information, according to The Korea Times.

"In operating its Street View cars, which toured and took photographs of Korean cities to provide the content for Street View, we believe that Google collected more than serial numbers of the Wi-Fi access points, but also the personal data of people communicating over unsecured Wi-Fi systems," a police official told The Korea Times.

To give a picture of why Google is getting into trouble, the blog Disorderly Conduct shows dozens of examples of crimes and misdemeanors caught on Street View and posted online: Women appear to be prostituting, a graffiti artist is vandalizing a bank, people are apparantly drinking alcohol in a public park.

Amid all the problems with Street View, what, exactly, is it worth?

Google boasts Street View as resource for businesses who want a picture to advertise their location or to evaluate marketing campaign locations. Users can "visit" homes and places worldwide and get a sense for what they look like in real life. Street View allowed World Cup attendants to see venues ahead of visiting.

Now, as if there wasn't enough controversy already, a Google executive has reportedly purchased an aerial drone. This raised speculation that the California company may soon unleash a fleet of camera-equipped planes, in addition to its camera-laden vehicles already roving in 29 countries on five continents.

“If the drones were to be used by Google – which the company has denied – it would be likely to start a new privacy row,” reports The Daily Telegraph in London, "despite the shots not being significantly different from existing aerial photography."

UPDATE Aug. 11: Google e-mailed the Monitor to clarify: "Google is not testing or using this technology. This was a purchase by a Google executive with an interest in robotics for personal use."

Five countries challenging Google

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