Google alerts Canadians about Street View filming

People strolling past homes, stores and even strip joints across Canada will soon be captured and frozen in time by Google's camera, to appear in high-resolution street-level images on the internet.

People strolling past homes, stores and even strip joints across Canada will soon be captured and frozen in time by Google's camera, to appear in high-resolution street-level images on the internet.

Cities where Google will be filming:

  • Calgary.
  • Edmonton.
  • Halifax.
  • Montreal.
  • Ottawa.
  • Quebec City.
  • Saint John.
  • Saskatoon.
  • Toronto.
  • Vancouver.
  • Winnipeg.

Google will be driving around 11 Canadian cities across the country again "in coming weeks" to take images for the Canadian version of its Street View service, which it hopes to launch "very soon," the company announced earlier this week.

The service, which is already available in cities in the U.S., the U.K., Spain, Australia, Japan and several other countries, provides close-up, 360-degree views of city streets as they would be seen by someone driving along them. The images are linked to the company's Google Maps and Google Earth applications.

Google has collected such images of Canadian cities before, but this time it is letting residents know about it as part of an effort to address privacy concerns that were brought up by the Privacy Commissioner of Canada after the service first launched in the U.S. in 2007, Google spokeswoman Tamara Micner said Thursday.

"We've worked with all of the provincial privacy commissioners as well as the federal privacy commissioner to tell them what Street View is, how it works and to brief them on these privacy features that we've added," Micner added.

Those features include the automatic blurring of faces and licence plates to avoid identifying people or cars and an easy method to request to have images removed.

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

"We like to make sure that in every country where we launch a product that it complies with local laws and customs and norms," Micner said.

Blurring not always enough: privacy watchdog

Elizabeth Denham, assistant privacy commissioner of Canada, confirmed that her office has been consulted by Google about Street View.

"I think that's a very good thing," she said.

She also confirmed that her office had asked the company to warn people before it began collecting imagery.

"And then citizens can have a chance to avoid having their images captured on camera," she said.

Denham is pleased that Google has warned the public about its filming but thinks the warning should have been more focused in terms of specifically when it was happening and in which local areas, especially since some people might still be identifiable in the images.

"The risk is that their image is captured without their knowledge when they're entering a sensitive location such as a women's shelter or an abortion clinic, and that's not information … that should be in the public domain."

As for Google's face and licence-plate blurring technology and procedures for requesting images to be removed, those are a "responsible and important first step," Denham said.

However, her office has outstanding concerns about the effectiveness of the blurring technology, which isn't able to identify and automatically blur every face. In such cases, it is up to the public to alert Google.

Denham is also concerned about the fact that Google is keeping the original, unblurred images and said her office is continuing to talk to the company about that.

Concerns not just over Google

She emphasized her concerns are not specific to Google but also pertain to other, similar services.

In fact, a street view service provided by another company already exists in Canada. That service, which includes images of Vancouver, Whistler and Squamish, was launched by another company, Vancouver-based Canpages Inc., earlier in March.

However, B.C. falls outside the jurisdiction of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada as the province's provincial laws are very similar to federal laws and take precedence within B.C. If the company expands its imagery to other provinces, as it has said it intends to, then Denham's office would have jurisdiction, she confirmed. However, so far, Canpages has not contacted the Privacy Commissioner of Canada.

Calgary's Immersive Media, a company involved in creating many of the Google's original street views in the U.S.,  said it is currently working on a second-generation Street View tool that will include street level, full motion, 360-degree video of Canadian cities, including the insides of many buildings. President and CEO Myles McGovern said the company consulted with the Privacy Commissioner of Canada and gained a letter of approval before collecting images in several cities, including Ottawa, Quebec City, Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. The company plans to launch the service soon with a partner but not with Google.

Google Street View was first launched in the U.S. in May 2007. Four months later, Canadian Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart warned the service might not comply with federal privacy legislation, as it included images of identifiable people that had been collected without their consent.