Google Street View may violate Canada's privacy law

Google Street view mat be illegal in Canada

Canada's privacy minister has warned Google Inc. that its Street View application may be illegal in that country.

Federal Privacy Minister Jennifer Stoddart recently sent a letter to Google saying its Street View application may violate Canada's Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act.

It appears that Stoddart's letter was a preemptive strike because Google doesn't yet offer its Street View application in Canada.

Currently, Street View provides users with a close look at U.S. city streets that could include identifiable images of people. Google launched Street View in May with its Canadian partner, Immersive Media Corp.

Canada's privacy law prohibits the commercial use of personal data without permission from the individual, according to the letter. However, even if an individual gives consent, businesses must limit the collection, use and disclosure of personal data for uses that a "reasonable person would consider appropriate under the circumstances," Stoddart said in her letter to David Drummond, Google's chief legal officer. In addition, under the act, people have a right to see the personal information that businesses have collected on them and to correct any errors, Stoddart said in the letter.

In her letter, Stoddart said her office "considers images of individuals that are sufficiently clear to allow an individual to be identified to be personal information within the meaning of [the act]."

Stoddart said the images Google uses in its Street View application "appear to have been collected largely without the consent and knowledge of the individuals who appear in the images."

While Google allows users to request the removal of certain images, Stoddart said that doesn't solve the problem because people might not know their images appear on Street View. "As well, by the time individuals become aware that images relating to them are contained in Street View, their privacy rights may already have been affected," she said.

Google said it takes privacy very seriously. "And we abide by the local laws of the countries in which we operate," a Google spokeswoman said in an e-mail. She also said before Google launched Street View, it worked with several public service organizations to address privacy concerns.

Street View only features imagery taken on public property, and the images are several months old, the spokeswoman said. Anyone walking down the street can easily see and/or capture the same information, she said.

"Imagery of this kind is available in a wide variety of formats for cities all around the world," the spokeswoman said, adding that Google provides tools so users can flag inappropriate or sensitive images for review and removal. She said objectionable images include nudity; certain types of locations, such as shelters protecting victims of domestic violence; and clearly identifiable individuals.

"We routinely review takedown requests and act quickly to remove objectionable imagery," she said. "To date, we have received very few imagery removal requests."

Separately Friday, Google at a meeting of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in Strasbourg, France, proposed that governments and technology companies develop a transnational privacy policy to address concerns over how personal data is managed cross the Internet.