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19. June 2012

Data protection and requirements for Google Street View under Swiss law

The images of streets and squares available via the online service Google Street View sometimes feature persons and vehicle number plates as well as private courtyards and gardens. Google uses software to blur personal features, but it does not provide complete anonymisation of personal data. Google Street View therefore has the potential to infringe upon the right to privacy.

The Federal Administrative Court upheld a claim by the Federal Data Protection and Information Commissioner (FDPIC) and ruled inter alia that Google was under the obligation to make sure that all faces and vehicle number plates were rendered unrecognisable before the images were published on the Internet. Google appealed against this judgement to the Federal Supreme Court. The Federal Supreme Court holds that it is not justified to require, in addition to automatic anonymisation prior to publication on the Internet, that all faces and number plates be rendered completely unrecognisable. It therefore upholds the appeal in part.

In the view of the Federal Supreme Court it must be accepted that up to a maximum of 1 % of the images uploaded are insufficiently anonymised and are manually rendered unrecognisable following a complaint by the persons concerned. This presupposes that information about the procedure for making an objection is clearly visible. This should be provided in the media and on the Google Street View Internet site. Google is required to meet requests that images be anonymised in an efficient and non bureaucratic manner.

Google is required to make this procedure available free of charge on the Internet and also to publish a postal address to which complaints can be addressed. Furthermore, it must ensure that the automatic anonymisation process is kept up-to-date in line with technological advances.
In the vicinity of sensitive facilities, in particular schools, hospitals, old people’s homes, women’s refuges, courts and prisons, the complete anonymisation of images of persons and vehicle number plates must be undertaken prior to publication on the Internet.

Images of private places such as courtyards, gardens etc., which are not visible to passers-by, must not be published in Google Street View without the prior consent of the persons concerned if these images have been recorded, as has been the case in the past, by way of a camera positioned at a height of more than 2 meters.

Google is required to provide information in regional and local media about any forthcoming recording and publication of images. A mere note on Google’s web page will not suffice to meet this requirement that the public be kept informed.

Judgment of 31 May 2012 (1C_230/2012)

(Source: Press Release of the Swiss Federal Supreme Court)