Google Set to Address Street View Privacy Issues in Japan

May 15, 2009
Toshiyuki Oomori, Nikkei Electronics
Shooting from a "trike" can be requested through the Partner Program.
Shooting from a "trike" can be requested through the Partner Program.
[Click to enlarge image]

Google Japan Inc, Google Inc's Japanese unit, announced May 13, 2009, that it will implement four measures for the privacy issues concerning its "Street View," a service that shows panoramic street views on its map service, "Google Map."

All of the four measures were developed in light of Japan's own circumstances and will be taken exclusively for the country, Google Japan said. At the same time, the company started the free "Partner Program" to accept requests to shoot Street View images from operators of tourist facilities and universities, for example.

First, Google Japan blurred every automobile license plate in all of the data of the Japanese version of Street View.

Google has thus far blurred license plates using automatic recognition capability in Europe, where high definition cameras are used for Street View shots. On the other hand, the company has not blurred license plates in the US and Japan. This is because there is not enough information to automatically recognize license plates in the images due to the low definition cameras used in the US and Japan, where Street View services started earlier than in Europe, Google said.

However, due to the strong requests from Japanese users, Google Japan decided to blur the license plates using the automatic recognition capability. The company will manually blur license plates that are not automatically recognized upon request, as it has been doing until now.

As its second measure, Google Japan will retake all the data with the position of the camera lowered by 40cm from the previous 245 to 205cm above the ground. The company previously set the camera at 245cm from the ground so that trucks parked on streets would not interrupt the shooting. However, the inside of private properties sometimes came into frame when images are shot from that height, which is higher than most fences.

As a result, Google "decided to lower the camera position as much as physically possible," Google Map Product Manager Keiichi Kawai said.

The company will use a new high definition camera with a narrow field angle for retakes. This will "make it difficult for objects positioned lower than the camera to be shot and considerably prevent the camera from peering inside private properties," he said.

Google Japan is planning to start shooting retakes with the lower-positioned camera within several months. As for the data that the company has already shot from the previous camera position and has yet to make public, it is planning to release it first and gradually replace it with new image data.

Also, Google Japan set a dedicated number for those who wish to request the company to stop showing certain Street View shots. Reception hours are 9:00 to 12:00 and 13:00 to 18:00 from Monday to Friday. The number is 0570-01-0041 and can be called from anywhere in Japan for local call rates (03-6415-5900 from mobile phones, PHS handsets and overseas).

Furthermore, the company started accepting requests to blur nameplates. Thus far, users could only request to blur faces and license plates.

Through the Partner Program, it is possible to ask Google to shoot images with a tricycle called "trike" instead of the normal shooting method using a car. Google Japan expects to receive requests from zoos, parks, universities, amusement parks, outdoor markets, stadiums, memorial buildings, circuits, golf courses and hotels.

It is difficult to respond to all requests, however, because of physical limitations, Google Japan said. Initially, it can only cope with "about several requests per month." The company will determine whether it will conduct shooting after examining the request in consideration of user needs, etc.

Google started the Partner Program in Japan for the first time in the world, with the view to providing the service in other countries in the future.