Thursday, June 18, 2009

Google execs testify about Street View and privacy

Yesterday, executives from Google Canada testified to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Ethics, Privacy and Access to Information about their Street View product and how Google is addressing privacy concerns.

Here's some of the media coverage from the Ottawa Citizen, which I'll supplement with the actual testimony when it's posted on the Committee's site:

Google ‘Street View’ amended to allay privacy concerns, executive tells MPs

OTTAWA — Google’s controversial “Street View” feature won’t infringe on Canadians’ privacy rights, the company’s head of Canadian operations said Wednesday in advance of an appearance before a House of Commons committee.

Jonathan Lister, head of Google Canada, was to stand before a federal government committee Wednesday afternoon to defend Google’s Street View service.

Lister came to Ottawa equipped with testimonials from Street View users all over the world — including Boris Johnson, mayor of London. He also offered data that suggest Canadians might be eager to see their home country represented on the new service, as more than 100 million Street View images from other countries have been pulled up by Canadians.

“It has been extremely well received and as people use it, they find more uses for it,” said Lister. “We’re getting indications that it’s going to be popular in Canada. We’ve got testimonials and accolades from tourism officials, the mayor of London, and Australian tourism officials that support the fact that it’s been widely well received.”

Lister was being brought before the access to information, privacy and ethics committee after the committee passed a motion demanding Google explain any impact its new Street View service may have on Canadians’ privacy rights.

The feature allows someone using Google Maps or Google Earth to click on a street or a building and see a picture of the area. The cameras used to capture the picture allow onlookers to swivel 360 degrees within the image and even allows Internet users the ability to take a virtual stroll through neighbourhoods.

Google has been preparing for the roll-out of Street View in Canada since March. The Internet search giant has also been in intense discussions with the federal privacy commissioner’s office since that time, trying to negotiate a solution that would allow Google to offer Street View images from Canada to the rest of the world without contravening Canadian privacy law.

“We think the product is compliant, but we are certainly not going to launch it until we have satisfied our concerns,” said Lister. “We continue to work with the commissioner’s office. As we get closer to rolling the product out we plan on working with local law enforcement officials and stakeholder groups.”

Lister said Google has recently revamped its internal policies to cut the amount of time the company will archive Street View pictures. The move addresses one of the privacy commissioner’s biggest concerns.

“Recently we’ve revised our retention policy such that we have made a decision to only retain these images for an adequate but not-excessive period of time, after which they will be deleted,” said Lister.

Street View also automatically blurs the faces and identifying features of people or licence plates caught by Street View’s cameras and anyone who sees their picture, or a picture of their home or vehicle can ask Google to remove the image.

Lister would not define how long an “adequate” period of time will be. He also refused to commit to a date for the official launch of Street View in Canada. Vehicles having been cruising Canadian streets and suburbs in 32 cities taking pictures for the new service over the past two months.

The access to information, privacy and ethics committee is reviewing Canada’s privacy laws to determine whether they need to be updated. The committee will roll Lister’s comments into a final report on the state of Canadian privacy legislation, which is due later this year.

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