Google Street View in India faces challenges

Google said it wants to avoid any controversies over privacy and conflicts with government

Google started collecting data for its Street View project in Bangalore on Thursday, but is being very careful not to run into controversies about privacy or government concerns about security, a company executive said.

The company holds that its Street View images are likely to be useful to people, businesses and the government. Ambulances and fire engines, for example, will find it easier to get to their destinations if they have access to the maps, said Vinay Goel, product head at Google India.

Google is coordinating with the local police and federal government agencies to get clearances and keep them informed about what the company is doing, he added. As far as possible, it would prefer to launch its Street View image collection at the invitation of local state governments.

Goel said that the people's faces and vehicles' license plates will be blurred to ensure that they are not identifiable. The data on the faces and the number plates will not be deleted, because Google may have to go back to the data, for example in case someone claims that it wasn't blurred properly, he added.

Google will also take the opinion of the government and other authorities about the level of detail it can go into, when taking images of installations that are considered sensitive by the government, Goel said.

In 2005, India's former president, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, criticized Google Earth and other online satellite mapping services for exposing sensitive installations in developing countries to terrorists.

Data protection authorities in a number of countries are investigating Street View service, after the company said last year that its camera cars mistakenly collected data from unencrypted Wi-Fi networks while compiling images of city streets for its Google Maps site.

"There is a lot that we have learnt over time," Goel said. "We have now said that we aren't looking at any of that Wi-Fi payload information as part of Street View."

Google is launching its Street View in India even as the country has tightened privacy rules. New rules place controls on the collection and use by companies of "sensitive personal information" such as a person's physical, physiological and mental health condition, sexual orientation, medical records and history, and biometric information.

An image of a person walking in the street may not be considered as sensitive personal information, but it is in a legal gray area where people can claim that their privacy has been encroached upon, said Pavan Duggal, a cyber law consultant and advocate in India's Supreme Court.

Blurring the face may not be sufficient in such a situation, if it is still possible to identify the person, he added.

Google will be extremely responsive to any request received from a user for the additional blurring of any images that feature them, the company said in a statement. Street View is designed to comply with all local laws including those related to security and privacy in India, it added.

New rules in India for intermediaries also require that Internet companies pull down content that is found to be objectionable within 36 hours, after the intermediary is notified by the affected party or the government, or becomes aware of the content on its own, Duggal said.

If there is some concern from the government or individuals about certain images, Google will work with them to remove the images, Goel said.

Google has previously criticized the new rules, and said that "if Internet platforms are held liable for third-party content, it would lead to self-censorship and reduce the free flow of information".

These probable legal issues come on top of challenges that Google already faced in building an online map application in India about three to four years ago.

Unlike in developing countries, where the company may have licensed third-party cartographic data, there wasn't any credible source for good and up-to-date maps in India, Goel said. Printed maps in India become out-dated six months before they are printed as everything is changing very fast on the ground. So the company decided to use its Map Maker program to get users to add information into the maps, he added.

In India, unlike in the U.S., driving directions are usually based on key landmarks like a church, temple, a movie theater, or a popular restaurant, Goel said.

Google plans to roll out Street View across the country, though it did not specify a time-frame.

John Ribeiro covers outsourcing and general technology breaking news from India for The IDG News Service. Follow John on Twitter at @Johnribeiro. John's e-mail address is john_ribeiro@idg.com

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