In Germany, Google is finally allowed to hit the road again with the much-discussed Google Street View camera cars. Collecting personal data is a sensitive matter for many Germans, but mass outrage, like thirteen years ago, has failed to materialize this time.
Until recently, anyone who looked at Street View of the map service Google Maps in Germany almost only saw white spots. While the American tech company in the Netherlands accurately monitors the change of houses, streets and traffic signs in 3D images, the pictures with our eastern neighbors – if they were available at all – stood still in the year 2010.
But Google’s camera cars are back in Germany. Since Thursday, the company’s dark passenger cars, equipped with a 2.9 meter high camera tripod on the roof, have been driving the streets of German cities such as Hanover, Hamburg and Munich again. Google appears to work very quickly. For example, the gaping construction pits around Alexanderplatz in Berlin have now been accurately visualized online.
Where and when Google’s camera cars drive exactly, the company leaves open for security reasons. Thirteen years ago, in many places in Germany, concerned citizens rose up against the company’s photographing cars. Protest marches took place and banners were hung from the windows in squatters’ streets in German cities calling for a boycott.
“I can see exactly where and how someone lives, what they do privately and how their front door is secured,” said the then Minister of Consumer Protection Ilse Aigner (CSU). Nearly a quarter of a million Germans signed a petition demanding that their homes become invisible. More commotion followed when it turned out that Google had collected personal data from citizens through Wi-Fi connections for three years. The company eventually pulled the plug on the German project.
Because of the traumatic history with totalitarian regimes, many Germans do not like onlookers. A large, mainly older population group prefers to pay cash in the shop, bearing in mind that someone from the Stasi (the Ministry of State Security in the old GDR) may be spying on you. Young generations are also affected by this.
Another factor: in East Germany, many have an aversion to American capitalism. A few years ago, the Berlin district of Kreuzberg successfully opposed the arrival of a Google startup campus.
The magnetism for expatriates and skilled foreign workers is shifting Berlin’s left-wing character, culminating in the recent election of the first centre-right mayor in 20 years.
The mass outrage about the Google vehicles, which did arise thirteen years ago, has not materialized this time. “I don’t think photography is a problem, the images need to be updated,” says the seller of a night shop in Berlin’s Friedrichshain district, which sells scratch cards and newspapers.
The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, a newspaper on the right side of the political spectrum, finds the doom thinking particularly premature. Many fears have not come true. And according to a columnist in the left-wing newspaper Taz ‘contemporary risks lie mainly in the unnoticed collection and sale of data, less in photographing’.
Thomas Fuchs, the special envoy for data protection and freedom of information (BfDI) in Hamburg, had the talks with Google and knows why there is no unrest now. “Unlike thirteen years ago, we made agreements with Google in advance,” Fuchs writes in a response. According to him, ‘active communication about the rights of those involved and the possibility to object’ contribute to acceptance of the cars.
But Michael Hirdes of the European hacker organization Chaos Computer Club is not entirely reassured. He remains skeptical about possible data misuse by US tech monopolists. ‘When a service costs nothing, you are the product. Then you have to consider for yourself what the consequences are,” he told the TV program ARD-Morgenmagazin.
The data protection service does not expect any problems. And those who really do not want the American tech company to take photos of their private property can complain to the government department in Hamburg by sending an e-mail or letter.
Free unlimited access to Showbytes? Which can!
Log in or create an account and don’t miss a thing of the stars.