A privacy watchdog has banned Google Inc. from gathering detailed, street-level images in Greece for a planned expansion of its panoramic Street View mapping service until the company provides additional privacy safeguards.
In rejecting Google’s bid to roam Greek streets with cameras mounted on vehicles, Greece’s Data Protection Authority, or DPA, said it wanted clarification from the U.S. Internet company on how it will store and process the original images and safeguard them from privacy abuses.
The decision, announced Monday, comes despite Google’s assurances that it would blur faces and vehicle license plates when displaying the images online and that it would promptly respond to removal requests.
The DPA also sought clarification on how Google plans to inform the public that its vehicles with mounted cameras are being used to take photographs.
“Simply marking the car is not considered an adequate form of notification,” a DPA statement said. “The authority has reserved judgment on the legality of the service pending the submission of additional information, and until that time will not allow (Google) to start gathering photographs.”
Since launching in 2007, Street View has expanded to more than 100 cities worldwide but has faced privacy complaints from many individuals and institutions that have been photographed.
Residents of a small English village formed a human chain last month to stop one of Google’s camera vans. And last year the Pentagon barred Google from photographing U.S. military bases for Street View.
But in most cases, particularly in the United States, Google has been able to proceed on grounds that the images it takes are no different from what someone walking down a public street can see and snap.
And last month, Britain’s privacy watchdog dismissed concerns that Street View was too invasive, saying it was satisfied with such safeguards as obscuring individuals’ faces and car license plates.
The World Privacy Forum, a U.S.-based nonprofit research and advisory group, said the Greek decision could raise the standard for other countries and help challenge that argument.
“It only takes one country to express a dissenting opinion,” Pam Dixon, the group’s executive director, said in a phone interview from the United States. “If Greece gets better privacy than the rest of the world then we can demand it for ourselves. That’s why it’s very important.”
Google spokeswoman Elaine Filadelfo said the Mountain View, Calif.-based company would be happy to provide the Greek DPA with further clarifications.
“Google takes privacy very seriously, and that’s why we have put in place a number of features, including the blurring of faces and license plates, to ensure that Street View will respect local norms when it launches in Greece,” Filadelfo said Tuesday.
Filadelfo said expanding the service to Greece would help local residents and tourists alike. Those unable to visit Greece in person would be able to see the Acropolis and other ancient sites from their living rooms, similar to how the service already lets users take virtual tours of the Colosseum in Rome and the Eiffel Tour in Paris.
Greece has strict privacy laws, giving the DPA broad powers of enforcement.
The authority has repeatedly ruled against Greece’s conservative government and banned the use of street cameras for fighting crime. The cameras were set up as part of elaborate security preparations for the 2004 Olympics in Athens.
It also clashed with the Greek Orthodox Church after it ruled that recording Greek citizens’ religion on state ID cards was illegal.
The DPA on Monday also ordered a Greek mapping site, kapou.gr, to suspend a similar street-level image service until it provides further privacy clarifications and uses face-blurring on its online images. The Greek site on Tuesday said it had stopped posting photographs while it was upgrading its service.
Google has, on occasion, voluntarily limited images in response to complaints.
Before unveiling Street View, it removed images of shelters for battered women because it could show in detail who’s coming and leaving.
The company also removed detailed Israeli street images from its separate Google Earth software after the government there raised concerns that Hamas used online satellite photos to aim rockets.
AP Technology Writer Michael Liedtke contributed to this story from San Francisco.