Does Google Street View see a future in Europe?

With major conflicts over data retention, Google executive says the company may stop shooting Street View photos in Europe, but a Google rep downplays those concerns.

Lance Whitney Contributing Writer
Lance Whitney is a freelance technology writer and trainer and a former IT professional. He's written for Time, CNET, PCMag, and several other publications. He's the author of two tech books--one on Windows and another on LinkedIn.
Lance Whitney
3 min read

Google's Street View snapshot tours of Europe could potentially come to an end, according to a high-level executive. But a company representative differed, saying that Google has no plans to stop photo shoots on that continent.

A Google Street View image of a coastal road in the Cinque Terre region of northern Italy.
A Google Street View image of a coastal road in the Cinque Terre region of northern Italy. Google

Faced with European Union demands that Google reduce the time it stores its Street View images from 12 months to 6 months, Google Chief Technology Advocate Michael Jones said this week that the company may choose not to map any new photos in Europe unless an agreement on data retention can be reached. Jones, who is also Google's former chief technologist of Google Maps, Google Earth, and Local Search, made his comments in an interview with Bloomberg News at the Cebit Technology Fair in Germany.

"I think we would consider whether we want to drive through Europe again, because it would make the expense so draining," Jones told Bloomberg. He added that a retention period shorter than one year wouldn't be possible. Due to software restraints, he said that Google can't process its data any quicker.

But in response, a Google representative downplayed concerns that Google may pack up its European Street View camera and go home.

"We do not have plans to end Street View in Europe," the Google representative said late Thursday in a statement e-mailed to CNET. "Michael's comments were made during a Q&A session, so I don't have a transcript available, but his comments were certainly not a threat to discontinue Street View--he was answering a question about how frequently we typically update our imagery and what sort of logistics that entails. Street View has proven to be immensely popular across Europe and we do plan to continue our efforts there, and of course to continue our dialogue with the relevant privacy organizations."

In a letter sent last week to Google, the EU advised the company to warn people in Europe before its Street View cameras snap pictures in their towns so as not to invade their privacy. The EU also told Google to cut its data retention time for those photos from a year to six months.

Responding through an official statement last week, Google global privacy counsel Peter Fleischer said the company needs to retain the images for a year to ensure their quality and accuracy, to help fix mistakes in the blurring of faces and license plates, and to use the data collected to build better maps. Fleischer said the company is committed to keeping and meeting the one-year retention policy.

Google has managed to raise hackles in Europe since it started its Street View snapshots across the continent. Last year, a privacy group in the U.K. filed a complaint with the government, claiming that some of the Street View photos were embarrassing and damaging to residents. Google also hit a brick wall in Greece over worries that Street View was snapping photos of people in compromising situations.

Addressing privacy concerns, Google maintains that it blurs faces and licenses plates in its Street View photos and will remove specific images upon request.