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EU cautions Google over Street View photos

European Union tells Google to warn towns and cities before it takes photos for Street View and asks company to shorten time it keeps those photos online.

Google is in hot water in Europe once again over Street View map photos.

In a letter sent to the search giant this week, the European Union's privacy watchdog told Google that it should warn towns and cities before it snaps photos for its online Street View maps. The EU also told the company that it should cut the time it keeps the original photos online from a year to six months.

In response, Google said it already posts updates on its Web site about the itinerary of its Street View cameras. The company also addressed privacy concerns, noting that the photos are all of public places and are typically several months to a couple of years old. In addition, the company blurs identifiable images, such as faces and license plates, and will remove a specific image if requested.

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

Peter Fleischer, Google's global privacy counsel, responded Thursday to the EU's request to shorten the time it keeps photos to six months with this statement:

We have done and will continue to engage with the Article 29 Working Party to demonstrate how we protect privacy in Street View and to explain our need to retain the unblurred imagery for a period of one year.

The need to retain the unblurred images is legitimate and justified--to ensure the quality and accuracy of our maps, to improve our ability to rectify mistakes in blurring, as well as to use the data we have collected to build better maps products for our users. We have publicly committed to a retention period of 12 months from the date on which images are published on Street View, and this is the period which we will continue to meet globally.

Street View complements Google Maps by displaying photos of everything from famous landmarks to ordinary neighborhoods. Since its launch in the U.S. in 2007, Street View has come under fire in light of privacy concerns. Although it is legal to take pictures of public locations, the EU is alarmed that photographing people in public could infringe on laws governing personal privacy.

This isn't the first time Street View has caught grief in Europe in particular. In spring 2008, an EU official expressed concerns about the project after Google first began shooting photos in European cities.

Last year, privacy watchdogs in the U.K. formally complained after its introduction there. And Greece voiced objections over Google taking photos of people, especially those in unflattering or potentially compromising situations. As a result, the company was forced to pull back on its Greek snapshots.

Overall, it's been a rough week for Google in Europe. On Tuesday, the European Commission announced that it was opening an antitrust investigation into the company's ranking of search results and advertising. Then on Wednesday, three executives from Google-owned YouTube were convicted by an Italian court over a video that showed students bullying a teen with autism.

Update at 8:45 a.m. PST: Google's response to the EU's request for shorter retention time has been added.