After privacy complaints, Google Inc. is beginning to automatically blur faces of people captured in the street photos taken for its internet map program.
Rolling out the change, however, will take several months, the company said.
Although Google's Street View service was not the first to augment online maps with photos, the detail and breadth of images on the site surprised and unsettled many users when it launched last year.
As specially equipped Google vehicles cruised city streets snapping panoramic images of homes and businesses, the resulting photos revealed people falling off bikes, exiting strip joints, crossing the street, sunbathing — everyday public acts but acts they might not have wanted preserved for posterity.
Some privacy advocates, including the influential Electronic Frontier Foundation, suggested that Google blur the images of people. That move, the critics pointed out, would not inhibit Street View's goal of helping people become familiar with the look and feel of a location before they travel there.
This week, Google revealed it had, indeed, begun deploying a facial-recognition algorithm that scans photos for mugs to blur. The changes are being first applied to scenes in New York City before slowly expanding to the other 40 cities in Street View.
Google spokesman Larry Yu said the company is still tweaking the system. For now, the program tends to err on the side of caution and blurs too many things — things a computer erroneously interprets as faces. Still, that is better than leaving too many faces unblurred, Yu said.
Google is responding not only to privacy complaints in the United States, Yu said, but is also trying to head off legal or cultural objections that might emerge as Street View expands into other countries.
Street View is not yet available for Canadian locations, but Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart in September warned that the service could violate Canada's privacy laws.
"I am concerned that, if the Street View application were deployed in Canada, it might not comply with our federal privacy legislation," Stoddart wrote in a letter to David Drummond, Google's senior vice-president of corporate development and chief legal officer.
"In particular, it does not appear to meet the basic requirements of knowledge, consent and limited collection and use as set out in the legislation."
Rebecca Jeschke, a spokeswoman for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, praised Google's decision, but she added that "it's just a shame it didn't happen before the tool launched."