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Google Street View: shades of Nazi spy era?

Google Street View invokes memories of Nazi surveillance.

Google car
People gather in front of a German Google Street View car at the Google stand at the CeBIT Technology Fair on March 3, 2010 in Hannover, Germany. Google's Street View project has raised privacy concerns. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

FRANKFURT, Germany — It wasn’t too long ago that apartment dwellers in Germany assumed that someone, somewhere in the building, was taking notes on everything they did. Even people who owned their own homes could never be certain whether a government mole was listening in on their conversations.

“Making sure the law was kept,” said Jobst Krause, a 67-year-old Frankfurter, of the surveillance during the Nazi era.

Krause is too young to have experienced the worst of Nazi surveillance, and he lived in West Germany when the Stasi, East Germany’s secret police force, kept tabs on citizens. But he understands the pang of worry that shot through the hearts of many Germans last week when Google, the American search engine giant, announced that it would launch its Street View application in Germany before year’s end.

Google began sending camera-equipped cars throughout Germany’s 20 largest cities in 2008. Once launched, the Street View program will offer panoramic, ground-level photographs of most streets in those cities, allowing Web surfers to virtually tour those cities as if they were walking or driving.

The program was launched in the U.S. in 2007, and has since spread through 23 countries. But Google found fierce resistance in Germany, where strict privacy laws and suspicion about the company’s reasons for widespread data collection have led to a handful of investigations.

Data protection officials in the regions where Google sent its Street View camera cars insisted that license plates, faces and other identifying elements be obscured, and that residents be able to take a virtual eraser to pictures of their homes.

That’s standard procedure for any country with Street View, Google spokesman Stefan Keuchel said. The difference in Germany is that people can request that pictures of their homes be removed from the archive before those pictures ever appear online. Elsewhere in the world, Keuchel said, people can only request removal after the program is launched.

Since May 2009, between 10,000 and 99,999 Germans (Google refuses to release the exact number) have since asked that photographs of their homes be destroyed.

“People are able to contact us via email, fax or written letter,” Keuchel said.

That’s the problem, said Jan Schmidt, an interactive media expert at the Hans-Bredow-Institut in Hamburg.

“The German view would be, ‘I want to be asked first,’” Schmidt said.

German data protection officials required that Google notify residents several weeks before cars with cameras rolled through their neighborhoods. Residents could, for example, tidy up their front lawns or choose another day to sunbathe in the nude. But they couldn’t stop the cameras from taking photographs. Even if that were possible, many Germans didn’t have any idea what Street View was, nor did they know to watch out for a notification that a car with a camera was set to drive down their road.

Another problem is that people are forced to share personal data with Google in order to opt out, said Johannes Caspar, a Hamburg-based data protection official who is a primary liaison between regional governments and Google. They must confirm their names and place of residence to get their homes removed from the archive.

Caspar said he was surprised last week when Google announced Street View’s coming launch.