After privacy complaints, Google is beginning to automatically blur faces of people captured in the street photos taken for its Internet map program. Rolling it out will take several months, however.
Although Google's Street View service was not the first to augment online maps with photos, the detail and breadth of images on the site surprised and unsettled many users when it launched last year.
As specially equipped Google vehicles cruised city streets snapping panoramic images of homes and businesses, the resulting photos revealed people falling off bikes, exiting strip joints, crossing the street, sunbathing — everyday, in-public things but nonetheless, things they might not have wanted preserved for posterity.
Some privacy advocates, including the influential Electronic Frontier Foundation, suggested that Google blur the images of people. That move, the critics pointed out, would not inhibit Street View's goal of helping people become familiar with the look and feel of a location before they travel there.
This week, Google revealed it had indeed begun deploying a facial-recognition algorithm that scans photos for mugs to blur. The changes are happening first in scenes in New York, before slowly expanding to the other 40 cities in Street View.
Google spokesman Larry Yu said the company is still tweaking the system. For now it tends to err on the side of blurring too many things — things a computer erroneously interprets as faces — but that is better than leaving too many faces unblurred, Yu said.
Yu said Google was responding not only to privacy complaints in the U.S., but also trying to head off legal or cultural objections that might emerge as Street View expands into other countries.
Rebecca Jeschke, a spokeswoman for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, praised Google's decision, but she added that "it's just a shame it didn't happen before the tool launched."