Google Canada vows to purge faces from its Street View data

If your face was captured by Google's Street View cameras in recent weeks, your mug is in the company's image database. But it won't be for long, assured the head of Google Canada Wednesday, before a visit to Parliament Hill to answer questions from the federal ethics committee.

Google shooting in 32 Canadian cities, more than originally announced

If your face was captured by Google's Street View cameras in recent weeks, your mug is in the company's image database — but it won't be for long, the head of Google Canada said Wednesday.

Canadian cities where Google is currently shooting images for Street View:

Source: Google
AlbertaCalgary, Edmonton, Lethbridge
British ColumbiaAbbotsford, Kelowna, Vancouver, Victoria
New BrunswickMoncton, Saint John
Nova ScotiaHalifax
OntarioBarrie, Brantford, Guelph, Hamilton, Kingston, Kitchener, London, Oshawa, Ottawa, St. Catharines-Niagara, Thunder Bay, Toronto, Windsor
Prince Edward IslandCharlottetown
QuebecMontreal, Quebec City, Saguenay, Sherbrooke, Trois-Rivières
SaskatchewanRegina, Saskatoon

"We'll be permanently blurring them and permanently anonymizing them, so there's no imagery in there that's identifiable," said Jonathan Lister, managing director and head of Google Canada, about two hours before he was to answer questions from the Commons ethics committee about Street View.

The service, which provides close-up, 360-degree views of city streets as they would be seen by someone driving along them, is already available in nine other countries around the world and is expected to launch in Canada soon.

The company is currently shooting high-resolution, still images in 32 cities across the country, more than originally announced. The images, which were collected at a specific point in time and are not often updated, are linked to the company's Google Maps and Google Earth applications.

The ethics committee had asked Google Canada officials to meet its members after discussions between the company and Canada's privacy commissioner. Vancouver-based CanPages Inc., which launched a Google Street View-like service earlier this year, also spoke before the committee Wednesday.

Lister added that he expected to answer questions about Street View's privacy features, which include:

  • The ability for people to request that their home, their car or their family to be removed from available images.
  • Automatic blurring of identifiable images such as faces and licence plates.

Lister said the company recently changed its image retention policy and has decided to keep the original, unblurred images for the shortest amount of time possible. Currently, those originals are being used to tweak the software that identifies and automatically blurs things like faces.

"We're keeping them for as long as it takes to satisfy ourselves that we've been able to improve the software as much as possible," Lister said.

However, he could not say how long that would be.

The privacy commissioner's office had previously raised concerns about the fact that Google's software did not always succeed in identifying and blurring faces and that Google kept the original images.

Privacy advocates, including the office itself, have raised concerns that people might be photographed without their knowledge while entering sensitive locations such as abortion clinics or while engaged in embarrassing activities.

After Street View first launched in the U.S. in 2007, Canada's privacy commissioner warned that the service might not comply with Canada's privacy laws. 

However, Jacob Glick, Google Canada's policy counsel, said Wednesday that Google has been working with the commissioner's office, is confident that it currently does comply, and would not launch otherwise.

Lister would not reveal exactly when Street View will launch in Canada, only that the service will be available "when we have gathered enough imagery such that we're convinced that the product will be fantastic."

21 more cities

Google released a list Tuesday of 32 cities — 21 more than originally announced — where it is currently gathering images. A link to the list, which includes smaller communities such as Kingston, Ont., and Saguenay, Que., appears on the newly launched Google Canada Street View website.

Google announced in March that it would be collecting images in 11 Canadian cities in the following weeks. That warning was issued to address concerns raised by Canada's privacy commissioner, the company said at the time.

Google Canada spokeswoman Wendy Rozeluk clarified Wednesday that the initial list only included the major cities to be covered. Google had always planned to include the surrounding areas of those cities and additional sites, she said.

Lister added: "We're constantly evolving it and we're constantly adding areas where taking photos."

The new Street View website includes a list of frequently asked questions about Street View in both English and French, including questions about privacy.

Since Street View's initial launch, it has expanded to nine countries around the world.

In 2007, Google collected images in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec City. However, those Canadian images have not yet appeared online.

Meanwhile, CanPages Inc. launched a Google Street View-like service in March, featuring street-level images of Vancouver and Whistler. Calgary-based Immersive Media is also working on a similar service.