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Switzerland: Court Decision in Privacy Violation Case Partially Favorable to Google

(June 15, 2012) On June 8, 2012, Switzerland's Federal Supreme Court (Bundesgericht) announced that it had partially upheld Google's appeal in a case involving the company's alleged violations of privacy through its Street View service. (Sung Un Kim, Switzerland Court Partially Rules for Google in Privacy Case, PAPER CHASE NEWSBURST (June 8, 2012).)Street View is a technology that allows “360-degree street-level imagery,” according to its website. (Explore the World at Street Level, GOOGLE MAPS (last visited June 12, 2012).)

The Federal Administrative Court (Bundesverwaltungsgericht), upholding a claim by the Federal Data Protection and Information Commissioner, had “ruled inter alia that Google was under the obligation to make sure that all faces and vehicle number plates were rendered unrecognisable before the images were published on the Internet.” (Press Release, Data Protection Matters in the Context of Google Street View: Federal Supreme Court Partially Upholds Google's Appeal, Judgment of 31 May 2012 (1C_230/2012) [scroll down page to see text in English].)

The Federal Supreme Court, according to a press release on the Google decision, sets out requirements for effective data protection in the context of Street View and, in particular, orders suitable anonymization of images of persons and vehicle number plates, and in some situations complete anonymization. However, the Court did not concur with the Federal Administrative Court that, “in addition to automatic anonymisation prior to publication on the Internet, … all faces and number plates be rendered completely unrecognisable. It therefore upholds the [Google] appeal in part.” (Id.)

The Court noted that it was necessary to accept that up to 1% of the uploaded images on Street View are insufficiently anonymized and have to be manually rendered unrecognizable after a complaint has been lodged by the party concerned. For this procedure to be followed, information on how to make an objection must be clearly visible beforehand, the Court said, to be provided in the media and on the Street View website. (Id.) Other requirements placed on Google, according to the Court, are to:

    • meet requests for images to be anonymized efficiently and not bureaucratically;
    • make the anonymization procedure available free of charge on the Internet and publish a postal address to which complaints can be addressed;
    • ensure that the automatic anonymization process is up-to-date and conforms to technological advances;
    • undertake complete anonymization of persons and license plates prior to Internet publication if the images are taken in the vicinity of sensitive facilities, e.g., schools, hospitals, and prisons;
    • for images of places not visible to passers-by, which are recorded by a camera at a height of over two meters, obtain the consent of the persons concerned prior to Street View publication; and
    • provide information in regional and local media, that is not ” a mere note on Google's web page,” on forthcoming recording and publication of Street View images. (Id.; Federal Supreme Court, Judgment of May 31, 2012 [in German], 1C_230/2011.)

Google's Street View service has been subject to lawsuits and administrative actions in other countries as well. A high court in Germany ruled in March 2011 that the service is legal in that country, in a lawsuit involving a charge of violation of privacy and property rights after Street View took pictures of a woman and her family in front of their house. Because the pictures were taken from the street, the court held that no such violation had occurred. (Kim, supra.) In France and the United Kingdom, however, Google was found by data protection agencies to have violated the countries' respective data privacy laws through Street View's data collection practices. While the French commission imposed a fine on the company in a 2011 action, the UK agency warned Google, in a 2010 ruling, that it would fine the company if it did not comply with the law in future. (Id.)