Today’s blog is inspired by two recent events in Germany: (1) The vehement opposition to Google Street View from some Germans and Austrians, and (2) the March 2, 2010 German Federal Constitutional Court decision that overturned a law that allowed government authorities to store telephone call and email data for up to six months, for possible use by the police and security agencies. The court ruled that the law was a “grave intrusion” of personal privacy rights.
One day not so long ago in Berlin I learned how seriously some Germans take their personal privacy. I was walking around shooting some photos of typical everyday, non-tourist scenes of life in Berlin, when I saw a new wing of a hospital that looked architecturally interesting. There was also a small courtyard with trees and benches where patients and visitors could get some fresh air. I was on a public sidewalk, far enough away so that any people in the scene would really not be recognizable. About a split second after taking my first shot, some guy in a robe sitting on one of the benches stands up and starts screaming and cursing at me in English with a German accent. (All photographers are Ausländer?)
The gist of his rant was he didn’t want his f-ing picture taken. (His English curse-word vocabulary was excellent.) Instead of simply turning his face away, he was coming at me in a rage. I yelled back that I was only taking a photo of the building, but that just made him more agitated. Although it was not a mental hospital, I felt that logic was not really going to work here, and I simply retreated, abandoning any more photographic attempts at that location.
Although it was the rudest, that was not the first confrontation I have had over German attitudes about photos in public. Another time, while shooting typical train station shots at the Ostbahnhof, I was aiming my camera at a glass restroom door/window, upon which the outrageous prices for using the facility could be seen. The WC entry turnstiles and a counter were also visible. Behind the glass was a cleaning lady mopping the floor. I waited until her face was turned away (she was also out of focus) before clicking the shutter. There were no other people visible in the shot. Nevertheless, some gentleman passing by took it upon himself to lecture me about German law and photographing people (this time in German). After I explained that nobody’s face was visible in the photo, he seemed satisfied.
Das Recht am eigenen Bild
The fact is that German law grants individuals a lot of control over their own image, whether it is a photo, video, a drawing, or any other likeness. (Artistic likenesses are allowed under the “freedom of art” provisions.) That’s why when you watch German TV coverage of some criminal, convicted or not, the offender’s face is almost always blurred or pixelated. The only people exempted are Personen der Zeitgeschichte (“people of the contemporary era”), in other words well-known people in business, politics, entertainment, etc. In general, the more famous you are, the more you have to endure seeing your image all over the place. But even high-profile personalities such as movie stars or prominent business people have protection in the “private sphere” – at home in “den eigenen vier Wänden” or any place that would normally be considered out of public view. German anti-paparazzi laws are much stronger than similar laws in most other countries, especially in the US and the UK. And, in certain circumstances, someone as famous as Angela Merkel also has the right to control how her image is used. For instance, a famous person’s image may not be used for commercial purposes without their consent, just as for any average person.
Which brings us to Google Street View. When Google began cruising through German towns and cities to take pictures for the Street View version of Google Maps, some people showed their displeasure by vandalizing the Google cameras and vehicles. Recently in Austria, a 70-year-old man who didn’t want his photo taken threatened the driver of a Google camera car with a garden pick.
Some prominent German government officials, most notably Consumer Protection Minister Ilse Aigner, have denounced Google’s Street View. In a magazine interview, Aigner claimed that Google’s “…comprehensive photo offensive is nothing less than a million-fold violation of the private sphere. I reject this form of exposure. There is not a secret service in existence that would collect photos so unabashedly.”
Other German critics feel that Google’s Street View images, taken from a height of about 10 feet, could help burglars scope out robbery targets, although there is no evidence of this in places where Street View has already been available for years. Germans really don’t like anyone peeping over their high fences and hedges. That’s why they are there.
Google has already agreed to automatically pixelate/blur license plates and faces seen in Street View images in Germany (see Datenschutz und rechtliche Fragen), but that’s not good enough for the city-state of Hamburg. Data protection authorities there also demanded that Google not archive raw, unblurred images of people, cars and property. People in Hamburg can ask that Google delete images of their property. One Hamburg newspaper claimed that 60 percent of Hamburg’s citizens were opposed to having their house shown in Street View.
In Bavaria, the website of the Bayrisches Landesamt für Datenschutzaufsicht (Bavarian State Office for Data Protection Supervision) has posted information about, and a template for objecting to having one’s house shown in Street View. Many other German states and communities support citizens’ objections with similar efforts. Stuttgart even tried to ban the Google camera cars from the roads, but couldn’t find a legal way to do so.
At the federal level, Aigner’s Consumer Protection Ministry now has a downloadable form online that German consumers can use to request that their house not be included in Street View – which could make Street View rather useless in Germany if Google complies with such demands. Google already allows people in Germany to request the removal of house address numbers.
In 2009, EU data protection authorities required that Google announce the routes of Street View camera vehicles before taking any pictures. Google now lists the current shooting locations on its German Street View site and through press releases.
Google Street View now covers most of the US – with little objection. As I write this, the Google Street View option is also available for many locations across most of Europe, including the UK, Denmark, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland – but not in Germany or Austria. However, a competitor, Sightwalk, already has panoramic views in seven German cities, mostly in downtown areas. The Romanian company Norc now has its own street view images online for many Austrian cities, complete with a 3D option.
The British don’t seem to mind that 95 percent of the British Isles are now on Street View. Bill Baldry, a 63-year-old retired TV weatherman, takes a very different view than most Germans. He is pictured three different times in various Street View scenes of Strowmarket, his hometown. He said he has no intention of objecting. He’s quite proud of holding a record of sorts.
Americans may also find the German Street View concerns a bit extreme, but considering the abuses of personal privacy during the Nazi era and more recently by the Stasi (secret police) in East Germany, it is easier to understand German attitudes. When it comes to privacy, even Americans are increasingly concerned about identity theft and privacy protection in that regard, especially as more and more government and private agencies seem to be losing control over the data they are supposed to keep secure.
But if Australia, Japan, the US and the UK have had Street View for many years now, one wonders why Germany and Austria can’t do the same. Even a few Germans are shaking their heads over all the Street View wariness. None other than Angela Merkel herself has stated that Germany would not hamper the release of Google’s Street View application (DW-World.de).
Google has been in the process of gathering images for Germany and Austria since 2008. They plan to put Street View online in both countries by the end of 2010, but since they like to take the Street View pictures only in good weather, it may be a long time before Germany and Austria have extensive Street View coverage. That’s assuming the dark clouds of German privacy paranoia don’t continue to rain on Google’s parade.