Google Inc.'s top voice on privacy said the company is working on a version of its controversial Street View application that willadhere toCanada's privacy laws, a move that could pave the way for a new, albeit blurry, way of navigating through Canadian cities.
Street View is a new feature on Google's map service which depicts thousands of street-levelimages of major American cities. Not only does the featureshow users the addresses they are searching for, but it alsoprovides a view much more like the one they would see when travelling to the location.
Peter Fleischer, the top privacy counsel for the internet search company, said on Monday thatGoogle was willing to blur images in street-level photographs in response to concerns voiced by Canada's privacy commissioner about the legality of posting images where individuals can be clearly identified.
"The service will look different in Canada than it does in the United States," Fleischer told CBC News. "And that probably means blurring identifiable faces and license plates."
Fleischer's statement comes two weeks after Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart said Street View images appeared to have been collected largely without the consent of the people who appear in them, in violation of Canada's privacy laws.
In a letter sent two weeks ago to Google, Stoddart expressed concern that "if the Street View application were deployed in Canada, it might not comply with our federal privacy legislation."
"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."
The tool has been controversialbecause the street-level views often include images of people, and someindividuals have been captured in potentially embarrassing situations: from walking out of an adult-video store to urinating in public.
A number of new websites that allow users to post embarrassing photographs they find using the application have already sprouted up since the application first became available in May.
It has already launched in seven U.S. cities but not yet in Canada, though Calgary-based Immersive Media's fleet of camera-equipped cars has collected images in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec City for the service.
Fleischer said Streetview meets U.S. privacy standards because the U.S. has a tradition of treating public spaces as truly public.
"There's absolutely no doubt it's legal in the United States," said Fleischer. "People don't have the same expectation of privacy when in public spaces."
Tighter rules in Canada
But Fleischer recognizes that Canada, and many European countries, have stricter rulessurrounding individual rightsand in terms ofprotecting how their images and identifying information is used and stored.
Canada's Personal Information Protection and Electronic Document Act (PIPEDA) requires private companies to obtain consent of consumers to collect, use or disclosure their personal information.
Although photographic images are not specifically spelled out in PIPEDA, they can be interpreted as personal information if the photographs clearly identify the individual, said Margaret Ann Wilkinson, a professor of law and information and media studies at the University of Western Ontario.
Wilkinson wonders whether blurring faces and license plates will be enough to satisfy PIPEDA. If an individual can be readily identified by his or her body, clothing or location, it might still be considered a violation, she said.
Colin McKay, a spokesman for the privacy commissioner, agrees some people will still be identifiable even with their faces blurred, but said the Office of the Privacy Commissioner is more concerned with whether a company has taken "reasonable steps" to ensure privacy has been protected.
'A good first step'
McKay said Fleischer's comments are a sign that Google is taking the comissioner's concerns seriously.
"I can't say point blank that these steps are enough, but it's a good first step," McKay told CBC News. "It shows that they are willing to take the necessary steps to safeguard the privacy rights of Canadians."
Fleischer said Google already has a policy by which it will take down images upon request.
Another question that remains unanswered is how the application would comply with Quebec'smore rigidprivacy laws. Quebec's provincial Charter of Rights and Freedoms requires photographers or video recorders to ask for consent of the individual whose image is being captured, a right that not even the media is exempt from. Wilkinson said whether the application would meet that tougher standard would again depend on how identifiable people were.
Fleischer didn't give a timetable on when the application might appear in Canada, but said the company has already received feedback from Canadian cities hoping to launch the service.
"We've had cities approach us offering to reimburse us on the cost of taking the images because they see the benefit for tourism," he said.
Fleischer is in Montreal this week for a meeting of international privacy commissioners to make the case for a set of international standards for electronic privacy.
The company has come under fire for its data retention policies but earlier this year reduced the amount of time it keeps personal search data to 18 months. He said the company's call for global standards should not be perceived as an effort to undermine the existing standards of countriessuch asCanada but rather as an effort to set standards for countries whose policies are incomplete.
"This is not about lowering Canada's standards. It's about getting nations to realize that protecting privacy on the internet is difficult when privacy regimes stop at the border."