Google to introduce 'Street View' in 20 German cities this year despite privacy concerns

BERLIN (AP) — Google will introduce its "Street View" mapping feature for 20 of Germany's largest cities before the end of the year, the company announced Tuesday, launching a new debate over privacy in Germany.

German officials have been one of the harshest critics of the "Street View" program, which provides detailed photographs of neighborhoods taken by Google cameras.

At the insistence of authorities, the faces of individuals and licenses plates will be blurred. People can also ask to have images of their homes removed from the database starting next week — a move aimed at dispelling privacy fears.

"This tool available before the launch of the service is unique to Germany," Google Inc. spokeswoman Lena Wagner said Tuesday, adding the company hopes to launch maps of the 20 cities in November, then expand the service.

The cities will include Berlin, Munich, Frankfurt, Hamburg and Cologne, among others.

But privacy watchdogs remain critical as the announcement comes on short notice, in the middle of summer holidays, with residents only able to ask for their house to be removed for a four-week window.

Johannes Caspar, head of the Hamburg office for data protection, also criticized Google for refusing to set up a hot line to answer questions. He said he has also urged Google be more transparent about how it plans to handle the data of those who object to the mapping program.

"Google is missing an opportunity to restore trust," he said in a statement.

German Consumer Protection Minister Ilse Aigner insisted that Google must accept written letters and faxes from people who do not have Internet access, but want their homes removed from the database. Thousands have already downloaded a standard objection letter from the ministry's website, Aigner said.

"It is crucial for me that the promise to take all objections into account will be fulfilled. I will watch very closely now to see whether the procedure proves itself in practice," the minister said.

Wagner insists the company is doing more than legally required to protect people's privacy.

"Street View" has been controversial in Germany, South Korea and other countries amid fears that people — filmed without their consent — could be seen on the panoramic footage doing things they didn't want to be seen doing or in places where they didn't want to be seen.

The U.S. Internet giant lost the trust of many in Europe this spring when it had to acknowledge that the technology used by its "Street View" cars had also vacuumed up fragments of people's online activities broadcast over public Wi-Fi networks for the past four years.

Aigner called that data collection an "alarming incident," which showed that Google still lacks an understanding of the need for privacy.

Since May, the company has suspended taking new photographs in Germany after "it accidentally saved that data," Wagner said.

Several hundred thousand Germans already use "Street View" every week to plan holidays or to look up an area in one of the 23 countries covered so far, Wagner said.

"Talks with data protection officials are always controversial, but the users like 'Street View,'" she said.

In South Korea, meanwhile, police investigators raided Google's Seoul offices Tuesday on suspicion the company was illegally gathering personal information for its "Street View" service.

Police official Ahn Chang-soo said a cyber crime unit is investigating Google Korea for possibly violating South Korean communications and privacy laws. Police confiscated computers and hard drives for analysis and that company officials will soon be summoned.