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22. 04. 11. - 16:08

Green light for Google Street View

Data protection watchdogs have given the go-ahead to take pictures of roads and house fronts across Austria for a controversial internet information service.

The Austrian Data Protection Commission (DSK) announced yesterday (Thurs) that American IT firm Google was not banned any longer from taking panoramic views of Austrian towns and cities for its Street View portal. Google was banned from continuing its activities in the country by the commission amid privacy protection concerns last May. The company has experienced similar complications in other countries as it aims to send its camera-equipped cars out onto the streets all over the world.

The DSK stressed that the end of the ban on Google Street View works was linked to several restrictions. The commission explained residents must be given the right to ask Google to make the front of their homes unrecognisable. Google was also ordered to automatically blur all peoples faces and licence plates of cars. All persons photographed outside buildings of various kinds including hospitals, churches and prisons will have to be pixelated entirely by the internet services giant. Furthermore, the DSK said Google Street View must not show anything which cannot be seen by pedestrians like fenced gardens.

Google Austria said today it was "happy" about the DSKs decision, but added it had no plans to offer Street View in the country in the foreseeable future. The company refused to reveal when it might send its cars out on Austrias roads.

The DSK initially banned Google from continuing its preparations for Street View after it emerged that the firm recorded wireless local area network (WLAN) internet connection information with its vehicles in some European countries. Google argued the information gained occurred "accidentally." Google which launched Street View in the USA four years ago claimed none of the recorded data would have contained personal information of internet users, adding that it deleted the tracked material.

A survey by Vienna-based agency Karmasin recently revealed that a majority of 51 per cent of Austrians think that the country needs more stringent data protection rules, while 39 per cent consider the current regulations as sufficient.

The public debate regarding Street View intensified in April 2010 when an Upper Austrian pensioner threatening the driver of a Google 360-degree camera vehicle with a pickaxe. Hermann Zach from Steyregg said he became so angry at the sight of the car outside his home that he chased after its driver wielding an axe. Neighbours eventually managed to keep the 70-year-old man from following the Google employee any further.

Meanwhile, Belgium became the latest country to examine Google's Street View activities after the companys special camera cars took pictures for the service. State prosecutors confirmed yesterday that they have opened an investigation after receiving a complaint from a private data protection pressure group. Belgian officials said Google which has its headquarters outside San Francisco, California may have committed a "flagrant violation of privacy protection laws."

Google Belgium apologised for having "unintentionally" acquired data from unsecured WLANs. The company added: "We neither looked at nor used the data for Google products or services. We are in contact with Belgian authorities."

Street View is currently available in nine countries all over the globe. Austrian tourism marketing agencies are reportedly in favour of Google starting taking images for the service in the country to make its ski resorts and cities more popular. Several holiday hotspots are offering 24-7 panoramic picture programmes on its websites to attract vacationers.

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