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Google now zaps faces, license plates on Map Street View

After criticism from privacy advocates, company changes policy to allow anyone to ask for a face or license plate number to be removed.

Google has gotten a lot of flack from privacy advocates for photographing faces and license plate numbers and displaying them on the Street View in Google Maps. Originally, the company said only people who identified themselves could ask the company to remove their image.

But Google has quietly changed that policy, partly in response to criticism, and now anyone can alert the company and have an image of a license plate or a recognizable face removed, not just the owner of the face or car, says Marissa Mayer, vice president of search products and user experience at Google.

"It's a good policy for users and also clarifies the intent of the product," she said in an interview following her keynote at the Search Engine Strategies conference in San Jose, Calif., Wednesday.

The policy change was made about 10 days after the launch of the product in late May, but was not publicly announced, according to Mayer. The company is removing images only when someone notifies them and not proactively, she said. "It was definitely a big policy change inside."

"We looked at it and we thought that's really silly because that's not the point of this product. The purpose is to show what the stores look like, what houses look like," she said. "If someone says, 'Hey, there's a face here,' ... it doesn't matter whose face it is."

Asked how many removal requests the company has received, a Google representative said, "Not even dozens."

There was some confusion when Mayer first mentioned the policy change during her keynote. She had said: "We've evolved our policy there to be such that (when) a person's face is seen or a license plate is seen ... when we're alerted to those we are actually taking the panoramas down and blurring the faces and blurring the license plates and then restoring them."

Later, she clarified that the company does not blur images, but removes them entirely. There are enough overlapping images in a street view that the fact that one image was removed is not apparent to the viewer, she said, explaining her use of the word "blur."

Google is using its own camera-equipped vehicles to take high-resolution images, which enables clear shots of details like faces, in San Francisco and San Diego. Privacy advocates have expressed concern that people may not even know that an identifiable photo of their face or license plate is online and suggested that blurring faces would be a good solution.