Almost 20 million kilometers: “Pixel burqa” and data protection: 10 years of Google Street View

Ten years ago, the whole of Germany heatedly discussed how to save privacy in the digital world. The dispute was sparked by the camera cars that photographed house facades for Google. Critics from back then now see other risks.

The colorful Google cars with the eye-catching camera structures are now driving around in around 90 countries around the world. Millions of panoramic shots enable Google to offer a virtual environment in its maps.

The cars drove almost 20 million kilometers. Google Street View also includes views of the underwater corals of West Nusa Tenggara in Indonesia or the American natural wonder Grand Canyon.

However, the camera cars have not been seen on the roads in this country for a long time. In Google’s panorama service, Germany consists primarily of white spots. And where something can be seen, the images have not been updated since 2011.

Google Street View was launched in Germany ten years ago. 20 large cities should start on November 18, 2010, smaller ones quickly follow. But the expansion soon came to a standstill because the service had the sharpest data protection debate since the dispute over the census in the early 1980s.

The then consumer protection minister Ilse Aigner (CSU) painted possible consequences in gloomy colors on the wall: “Using such services, I can see where and how someone lives, what personal preferences he or she has, how his front door is secured or which curtains on the windows – and that’s the very least. ” This would drag the private into the global public without any protection.

The digital association Bitkom speaks in retrospect of the “excitement and also hysteria” that prevailed at the time. For decades, the publication of images of public space was permitted and common. “Now this should be specifically banned with a view to card services, a separate law has been announced,” remembers Bitkom CEO Bernhard Rohleder.

Bitkom still criticizes today that the pressure from data protection officers ensured that, in the event of pixelation, all images of the corresponding building or part of the building had to be permanently and permanently deleted by the service providers. “One of the consequences of this is that the recordings cannot be restored after a change of tenant or owner, for example.”

The then Federal Data Protection Commissioner, Peter Schaar, sees the start of Google Street View as a point at which many people would have noticed for the first time that they could not simply disconnect from the Internet. “They had to realize that digitization is taking hold of them, regardless of whether they have a computer themselves or not, whether they are digitally savvy or whether they are still fully in the analog age.”

Schaar recalls that Google made a serious misstep at the time: the camera cars also picked up data from unprotected WLAN networks. Google spoke of a developer’s mistake. Schaar considers this to be a protective claim. The fact that Google apologized for the WiFi coverage reminds of the behavior in the diesel scandal. “The illegal shutdown facilities were also attributed to the misconduct of individual engineers.”

Despite the sharp criticism of the Google service, even data protection activists Schaar believes that there are much more serious invasions of privacy than Street View. “I mean the data collection, which happens unnoticed behind the screen, so to speak. When I surf the web, when I use digital services or apps, my privacy is more threatened when in doubt than when the facades of houses are photographed and these images are distributed on the Internet. ”

Street View started in May 2007 in the USA. Google quickly realized that human faces and license plates should be automatically made unrecognizable. It has long been controversial as to whether house facades should also be covered with a virtual veil – and who has to decide: owner or current residents. At the end of an excruciatingly long debate about a “pixel burqa”, both groups were allowed to do so.

At the time, 244,000 households in Germany applied for their houses to be obscured. Google emphasized at the time that just under three percent of households had requested pixelation. The effort for this was apparently so great that Google decided not to take further camera shots. The Street View cameras were only taken out of the closet for smaller prestige projects such as exploring the Munich Allianz Arena or the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg.

Nevertheless, cars are still constantly driving on German roads that capture their surroundings. They come from map specialists like TomTom or Here as well as tech companies like Apple and Google. “The purpose is no longer to draw a map or to generate a virtual world that people can look at,” explains management consultant Kersten Heineke, who is a partner at McKinsey and heads the Center for Future Mobility in Europe. Rather, it is about generating high-precision maps that can be read by machines and make autonomous driving possible.

Data protection advocate Schaar is now calling for a set of rules to be defined for the new digital mobility world in which privacy is preserved. “In the end, digitization can only be successful and sustainable if there is acceptance and trust. That wasn’t the case with Google Street View ten years ago. ” Digitization and data protection belong together and shouldn’t really be opponents, he says. But Google Street View is also an example of how solutions can be found to combine digitization and data protection. “Whether the solution found, to pixelate certain images, was really that wise, of course, one can still argue about it.”

Bitkom Managing Director Rohleder regrets to this day that the current online image material is missing, for example for emergency operations by the fire brigade. “We hope that Germany will gradually find a new way of dealing with map services and that what is already public can be shown on the Internet: the public space that is accessible to all.”


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.