Canadians nervously awaiting the launch of Google's Street View can rest assured: Operators will be standing by to handle complaints and remove compromising images within 24 hours.
The pledge from the head of Google Canada to have extra staff on hand should be welcome news to Robert White, who has been fretting about unwanted exposure since April. That's when he stepped naked in front of an open window after taking a shower just as a Google camera car rolled down the street.
Mr. White raised the issue with his Nepean-Carleton MP, Conservative Pierre Poilievre, who passed the story along to Jonathan Lister, Google Canada's managing director, during the executive's appearance yesterday before a House of Commons committee.
"What assurances can you give Mr. White that he will not become an international sex symbol?" Mr. Poilievre asked.
Mr. Lister said it's unlikely the cameras were able to shoot through a window.
"The photography and the photographic ability isn't that good," Mr. Lister said. "Google is not seeing inside buildings."
Further, his main message to MPs on the access to information and privacy committee was that Google intends to err on the side of individual privacy. He said Google's technology automatically blurs faces and licence plates that appear in its photos. If the software misses a face, Mr. Lister said, people can file a complaint and it will be addressed within 24 hours.
The tripod-mounted Google cars have been spotted taking 360-degree images in cities across Canada.
Street View is already available in nine countries, but Google has yet to say when the Canadian version of the site will be launched.
British tabloids quickly dubbed the site "Google Cheat View" after reports of men caught parked outside their lover's house or walking out of sex shops.
The venture ran into privacy objections in Greece this year, and Google was forced to reshoot its images in Japan after complaints the photos were taken from a high angle that peeked into private backyards.
Mr. Lister said he is working closely with Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart to make sure that the site complies with Canadian law.
"Google takes privacy concerns extremely seriously," he said. "We've put world-leading privacy protections into the product."
The Google executive said Street View will be a boon to Canadian real estate and tourism.
The committee also heard from Olivier Vincent, the president of Canpages Inc., which is already providing 360-degree street views of Western Canadian cities, including Vancouver and Whistler.
Despite Google's stated commitment to privacy, MPs expressed concern that Mr. Lister has not clearly stated how long the company will keep the non-blurred images.
MPs were also worried that the technology could identify vulnerable people, citing women's shelters as an example.
Mr. Lister said the company intends to alert community groups before the site goes live, in case there is a need to blur entire buildings.
The London-based Privacy International failed this year to have the British government ban Google Street View. The human-rights group is now focused on the company's latest technology, Google Latitude, which allows people to track each other's physical locations via their cellphones. Privacy International described Latitude as "an unnecessary danger" that could allow companies to track their employees.
Google is pushing back in the public debate. The company posts videos and blogs at http://www.google.com/privacy with tips on how to use the products without sacrificing privacy.
For instance, Latitude can be disabled or set so that it reveals only the city a person is in, rather than their exact location.