Microsoft takes Bing Streetside offline in Germany after privacy complaints

It remains unclear if and when the service will be reinstated

Microsoft has taken its Google Street View-like service Bing Streetside offline in Germany after German citizens expressed their worries about how Microsoft handles requests for blurring of images, the company said on Tuesday. All German panorama photos were made inaccessible as a precaution while Microsoft evaluates the complaints and contemplates a solution, the company said in a statement. Microsoft spokesman Thomas Baumgärtner said he could not predict when or if the service will be reinstated. The complaints were limited and were not initiated by a data protection agency, he said. "These are single incidents," he said, without disclosing how many complaints Microsoft received. Microsoft started photographing German streets in May last year and so far published Streetside photos of 31 cities and areas, including Berlin, Düsseldorf and Munich, according to a company overview published on March 1. Another 21 locations are scheduled to be photographed during 2012. Elsewhere, Microsoft has published Streetside views of parts of the U.S. and of the regions around Paris and Marseille in France, and around London, Liverpool, Manchester, Bristol and Coventry in England. Microsoft is continuing the scheduled photographing as normal, Baumgärtner said. The first Streetside photos were made available online at the end of December, after a period during which Germans could oppose the publication of photos of their houses, according to the Bavarian data protection agency. The preliminary objection period ran from August until September. Microsoft committed itself to automatically blur license plates, faces, violence and nudity in Streetside pictures, the company said when it announced the service. Houses were not automatically made unrecognizable because Microsoft said that, in their view, this is not personal data. The company received few complaints by the end of the preliminary objection period, it said at the time. After the deadline had passed it was still possible to complain about photographs showing houses by clicking on a button provided in each panoramic Streetside view. It was also possible to file a written complaint using a form posted to a Microsoft Streetside information portal, or complain by sending a letter to Microsoft, the data protection authority said. Any individual who feels disturbed by the publication of his house on the Internet has the right to object the publication, said the data protection agency in Bavaria. The filed objections can not be justified, and Microsoft has to blur every house that is flagged, it added. Microsoft is not the only company that struggles to comply with German privacy concerns. Google had similar problems with its Street View service that shows photographs of German streets in a very similar way to Streetside. One of the concerns was related to the storage of unblurred images on Google's servers. While Google automatically renders part of Street View images unrecognizable it said it needed to retain the original photographs to perfect its automatic blurring technology. Google later agreed to delete the raw images from its internal database within two months of receiving a request. Google Street View coverage in Germany -- a dozen cities plus the Cologne-Essen agglomeration -- lags behind that in neighboring countries such as Denmark, France and the Netherlands, where coverage is almost nationwide. In addition to inviting Germans to object to images before publication, the company is also obliged to publicize the dates and routes on which its Street View cars will be gathering data in Germany. Loek covers all things tech for the IDG News Service. Follow him on Twitter at @loekessers or email tips and comments to loek_essers@idg.com

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