BERLIN (Reuters) - The German government said on Wednesday it will scrutinize Google’s promise to respect privacy requests by letting people opt out of its “Street View” mapping system and that it would be ready to intervene if necessary.
In a country wary of surveillance due to the Nazis’ Gestapo and East Germany’s Stasi secret police, the response to Street View has been overwhelmingly negative even though Germans got assurances they can have images of their homes kept out.
Google’s announcement on Tuesday that it would allow Germans to stay out of Street View failed to allay fears that privacy would be compromised by the navigation system.
“We’ll take a very close look at how effectively this works in practice and we’ll see from there,” a spokeswoman for Consumer Minister Ilse Aigner told a government news conference.
Google has come under fire for the short time period provided to register their objections — by September 15.
“This four-week deadline is not right,” said Ulrich Ropertz, spokesman for the DMB German association of tenants. “It’s like you’re stuck forever if you don’t object right away.”
More than 10,000 Germans have already formally requested their homes be deleted from Street View. Criticism from civil rights watchdogs will likely push that figure higher.
“The Stasi would be green with envy if they could have collected this kind of data,” wrote the conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper. “What in the past was called ‘state snooping’ is now called ‘Google View’.”
Government officials said tenants will be able to keep their dwellings out of the panoramic street-level still photographs taken from Google vehicles with cameras rising about three meters (10 feet) high.
The government may also join the ranks of those requesting some buildings — such as military installations — be left out of Street View, government spokesman Christoph Steegmans said.
“Each minister can decide what to do,” he said.
Google plans to add Germany’s 20 largest cities to Street View by the end of 2010, joining 23 countries already included. Google said human faces and license plates would be blurred.
Johannes Caspar, data protection commissioner in Hamburg, said he was alarmed by the plans by the world’s No. 1 search engine, which calls Google Street View a helpful tool.
“I’ve got my doubts whether Google is really interested in a simple and user-friendly way for people to register their objections,” Caspar told daily Die Welt. “They’re not, for instance, going to set up a telephone hotline for questions.”
Launched in 2007, Street View allows users to see street scenes on Google Maps and take virtual “walks” on computers.
Critics say the tool invites abuse. They argue thieves can search for targets, security firms could use the data for sales pitches, job seekers might find their homes scrutinized by employers, and banks could inspect the homes of loan applicants.
Google ran into trouble in Germany in May after authorities found out that Street View vehicles were collecting private data sent over unencrypted WiFi networks. Google called it a mistake.
Editing by Mark Heinrich