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Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Germany’s Complicated Relationship With Google Street View

Germany is one of the most privacy-sensitive countries in the world. So when Google started taking pictures of buildings and homes for its Street View maps, some people were outraged, even though it was legal.

Then, when Johannes Caspar, the data protection supervisor in Hamburg, Germany, discovered that Google was also illegally collecting personal online data from unencrypted Wi-Fi networks, the outrage overflowed. Mr. Caspar’s discovery, and his prodding of Google to turn over more information about what it was collecting, led to investigations in at least a dozen countries.

Despite Mr. Caspar’s persistence in trying to find out what Google was doing â€" and his dismay at discovering it was collecting private information â€" when his agency concluded its investigation on Monday, it fined Google $189,225, the amount of money Google made every two minutes last year. Mr. Caspar called on lawmakers to raise the amount that regulators could fine companies. Yet even he did not fine Google the maximum amount that he could have, which would have been $195,000. Why?

In an interview on Monday, Mr. Caspar said he had given Google the discount because the company gave him a copy of the German data it had collected and, he said, finally cooperated at the end of the investigation.

Google’s global privacy counsel, Peter Fleischer, said in a statement that Google had cooperated with Hamburg authorities all along. “We work hard to get privacy right at Google,” his statement said. “But in this case we didn’t, which is why we quickly tightened up our systems to address the issue.”

Google declined to comment on the size of the fine.

Street View has always been a challenge for Google in Europe, because European privacy laws and cultural norms are more sensitive to privacy issues than those in the United States.

Google uses technology to blur faces and license plates in its Street View images. But European data protection authorities also required that Google notify the public before the Street View cars start driving on European streets and limit the amount of time that it keeps unblurred images of faces and license plates.

In Germany, though, that was not enough. So Google allowed Germans to request that it blur pictures of their homes, too. When Street View went online for Germany’s largest cities in 2010, the company said 3 percent of German households opted out.

Street View, which Google started in 2007, is in 50 countries as of Tuesday, when the company added Hungary and Lesotho and 350,000 miles of roads worldwide, the largest single update of imagery it has published.