Swiss privacy watchdog to sue Google Street View

Switzerland's privacy watchdog announces he plans to sue Google in federal court to force it to make changes to its Street View application.

Google's unstoppable drive to map and photograph the world has run into an immovable object — Switzerland's strict tradition of personal privacy.

The country's privacy watchdog announced Friday that he plans to haul the search engine company before a federal court to force it to make changes to its Street View application.

Google criticized the decision and said it would defend itself in the case.

The service allows people to view street-level pictures over the internet and already has been criticized in several European countries for allowing individuals to be identified without their knowledge or consent — potentially exposing embarrassing facts about their private lives to the world.

Switzerland's federal data protection commissioner wants Google to ensure that all faces and car plates are blurred, remove pictures of enclosed areas such as walled gardens and private streets, and declare at least one week in advance which town and cities it plans to photograph and post online.

"Numerous faces and vehicle number plates are not made sufficiently unrecognizable from the point of view of data protection, especially where the persons concerned are shown in sensitive locations, e.g., outside hospitals, prisons or schools," the commissioner, Hanspeter Thuer, said in a statement.

"The height from which the camera on top of the Google vehicle films is also problematic," he said. "It provides a view over fences, hedges and walls, with the result that people see more on Street View than can been seen by a normal passer-by in the street."

Thuer requested in August that Google take "various measures to protect personal privacy in its Street View online service."

"Google for the most part declined to comply with the requests," the commissioner said, prompting him to take the matter to Switzerland's Federal Administrative Tribunal.

Google to 'vigorously contest' case

Google said in a statement that it was disappointed by the move.

The California-based company believes Street View is legal and will "vigorously contest" the case, said Google's global privacy counsel Peter Fleischer.

While the case may take months to wind its way through Switzerland's legal system, it could have an immediate impact on the availability of the Street View service in the country.

Thuer has asked the tribunal to require Google to remove all pictures taken in Switzerland and to cease taking any more pictures in the country until a ruling is made.

While Switzerland has long been famous for its reserve and privacy — best illustrated by its strict banking secrecy laws — other countries also have taken a dim view of Street View since its launch in 2007.

In July, Greek officials rejected a bid to photograph the nation's streets until more privacy safeguards are provided. In April, residents of one English village formed a human chain to stop a camera van, and in Japan the company agreed to reshoot views taken by a camera high enough to peer over fences.

Google also caved in to German demands to erase the raw footage of faces, house numbers, licence plates and individuals who have told authorities they do not want their information used in the service.