Swiss court says Street View blurring does not have to be 100% accurate

Out-Law News | 12 Jun 2012 | 9:56 am | 1 min. read

Google can continue to operate its Street View service in Switzerland after its Supreme Court ruled in the company's favour. The court overturned a previous ruling that said that anonymising technology had to work 100% of the time.

A lower court had previously ruled that the automatic blurring technology Google uses in some countries to blur faces and car number plates had to work 100% of the time in order to comply with Swiss data protection law. Google objected, saying that it would be impossible to conduct manual screening of every image in order to ensure that the blurring always worked.

The Swiss Federal Supreme Court (Bundesgericht), the highest Swiss court, said that Street View was mostly compliant with Swiss data protection law and can continue to operate.

The court said, though, that Google would have to extend its current privacy procedures when it came to sensitive personal details and images revealing undisclosed private property. Google must establish an efficient procedure to allow concerned individuals to file for manual removal of identifiable personal details, it said.

Personal details of individuals pictured near or at potentially sensitive locations, such as schools, hospitals, retirement homes, women's refuges, courts and prisons must be completely anonymised prior to publication, the Court said. This means obscuring skin colour and clothing as well as faces.

Any courtyards, gardens and other private property that are not publicly visible and recorded with a camera positioned at two metres or above must not be published without prior consent, it said.

"We're pleased the Swiss court has upheld a key part of our appeal, acknowledging that we have strong privacy controls in Street View, like automatic blurring of faces and license plates," said Google's global privacy counsel Peter Fleischer, according to the New York Times.

The Swiss federal data protection commissioner Hanspeter Thuer, who started the court action against Google in 2009, said that he welcomed the ruling because it meant that foreign companies have to abide by Swiss privacy law, news agency Associated Press reported.

The Swiss judgment was the last of a number of judgments on the basic legality of Street View, which began operating five years ago. The ruling could have a significant impact since Swiss data protection and privacy law is known to be very restrictive. This year, Street View was introduced in Estonia and Lithuania where it already raised concerns.          

Some Street View-related law suits are ongoing. The company faces allegations of gathering personal information from Wi-Fi networks while taking images for the Street view service.