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May 14, 2008

Google Shows Blurred Faces in Street View to Protect Privacy

Google prepares to launch Street View in Europe, Canada and Australia, where local laws regarding privacy in public places are less permissive than in the US. As promised, Google will blur faces for all the Street View imagery not just because of local laws, but also because the purpose of Street View is to show places, not people that happen to be there when Google's Street View cars go by.

To test the face detection algorithms, Google started with Manhattan, where Google replaced the Immersive Media imagery with newer and better panoramic images. "This effort has been a year in the making - working at Street View-scale is a tough challenge that required us to advance state-of-the-art automatic face detection, and we continue working hard to improve it as we roll it out for our existing and future imagery." The results are pretty good, although not all the faces are correctly detected and people can be identified even when their faces are blurred.

As Avi Bar-Zeev suggested, a better idea would be to remove people and cars from the images. "The main reason for removing people and cars is the same reason you'd want the base Google Earth imagery to lack clouds. These things tend to block your view. You can't really look behind them in a simple (essentially 2D) panoramic image. They only represent one snapshot in time vs. a broader/more virtualized essence of the place. They make it confusing to add dynamic versions of the same things on top of what's permanently baked into the imagery."


  1. It would look really freaky to be street view-ing around a completely empty New York.

  2. I totally agree on removing everything from the images. (well, cars might be a hard one to do)

    There is already software out there for converting groups of images into a 3D model (and it's not like Google couldn't write a program themselves to do it)
    Just do that, delete the people.
    Cars might be harder since they don't move frequently, and rows of cars make it impossible, plus, the cars tend to show how busy a street usually.
    I know you could say the same for people, but people suck.
    Seriously though, groups of people in Streetview just look uglier than groups of cars.
    Cars are more of a static feature of most streets.

  3. Showing people and cars is information too, e.g. you may want to know how crowded this place is, what people dress like in that area, what kind of cars they drive, where people are allowed to walk and which areas may be closed etc. (not all can be answered perfectly at the moment, e.g. the Google car may be driving on a Sunday where there is more quiet in an area, but you do get some hints in any way). So if anything it should perhaps be only an option to remove or show people/ cars. Besides that, there's also the ghost town creep out factor of seeing empty streets :)

  4. I agree with hunnter - highly detailed, high resolution 3D street-level models of towns and cities would be the way to go - that way, details can be added and removed as needed.

  5. I'm afraid of my girlfriend seeing me with other girls in Street View images.

  6. I think blurring people is enough. Removing cars and people just seems like an absurd amount of processing. Also, as the commenter above pointed out, there is valuable information to be gleaned from how crowded/traffic-laden a place is (or was when it was photographed).

    One more thing: let's have a moritorium on the term "baked in" -- it sounds cheesy and stupid. Just say "integrated" since that's what you mean.

  7. No, Anonymous, it's you who sounds stupid for criticizing a completely valid and legitimate equivocal expression.

  8. Check out 1498 Broadway and look west towards the group of black guys. Funny how they were blurred out at 1502 but at 1498 you can see clear profiles and details. Nice miss Google, right on a highly viewed piece of real estate.

  9. I vote no for removing people from our city streets, watching I Am Legend once was enough.

  10. Does anyone know when street view will actually be available in Australia? I understand the photography has been done. And which locations can we expect to see? Sydney? Perth? Queensland?

    Thanks in advance.



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