Google Street View, a popular feature of Google Maps, has been making waves globally by offering 360-degree views of streets, panoramic images, and high definition content. However, it has proven controversial due to privacy concerns raised by governments as well as civilian users – and earlier this month, India joined that bandwagon. The Indian Home Ministry voiced reservations about going ahead with regulatory approval for Google Street View within India as it believed this would be a compromise on the country’s security. Specifically, “sensitive defense installations” might get compromised.
This concern has been particularly acute since the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, which were been possible because of photographic access to target zones. More recently, the January 2016 attacks on the Pathankot Air Force station were supposedly facilitated by the familiarity of the attackers with the topography and layout of the area, which they are thought to have gleaned via Google Maps. Complete rejection of the possibility of Street View in India is not certain yet – the Home Ministry declared that a final decision could only be made once other government bodies had their say and once the Geospatial Information Regulation Bill was passed.
This Bill, as other analysts at The Diplomat have discussed, heavily polices map-based information available about India, including severe fines and sentencing for agencies that wrongly depict the map of India. It cannot bode well for Google’s India ambitions, even though the proposal was met with favor earlier in April 2015 when the company pitched it as a useful tool for tourism and disaster management. Representatives were approached with the request to even make the city of Hyderabad the first one to fully implement it.
Google began with important Indian monuments – the Taj Mahal (Agra), Red Fort (Delhi), Gateway of India (Mumbai), and the Mysore Palace – before piloting in the actual streets of the city of Bangalore. This pilot went awry in 2011 when services were stopped right in the experimental phase after police objections regarding security.
Google collects the relevant information through cars and bikes fitted with cameras, which go around cities taking panoramic 360 degree photographs. They do however blur faces and license plates and other sensitive information collected – the company even accommodates user requests to do so. That has not in any way stemmed a flow of objections and lawsuits. In 2010, requests to blur faces were raised by Germany and, in 2014, Hamburg authorities fined Google. The Czech government has also banned Google Street View, despite multiple negotiations in 2010.
In 2014, the government of Italy fined Google $1.4 million for not having clearly recognizable photography cars and thus not giving people the full information required to consent to being photographed. France fined the company for inadvertently fetching data from WiFi networks. Google is fighting a Swiss lawsuit and potentially facing Dutch fines as well. The European Union has demanded that Google provide public advertisement of which cities they will be operating in before each operation commences and also to warn local residents before beginning any photo-collection efforts.
While Google has tried to address these concerns in several cases, the complaints do keep mounting, as in the case of India. Even their blurring policies don’t immediately apply to user-contributed images, which are also downloadable. India’s notion of privacy regarding images of individuals currently primarily caters only to images that offend sensibilities. The draft of the Personal Data Protection Bill 2013, when passed, might help better clarify what might count as private information and images. In the meantime, unless Google finds a way to overcome the safety concerns raised, India might be the next country to fully disallow the project.