How Can Israelis Protect Their Privacy With Google Street View on the Prowl?

An interview with Justice Ministry expert Yoram Hacohen.

Attorney Yoram Hacohen, 50, heads the Israeli Law, Information and Technology Authority at the Justice Ministry. Hacohen, an expert on law and technology for 24 years, set up the authority nearly five years ago. He and a staff of 30 defend the privacy of computerized information.

On Monday, ministers headed by Dan Meridor discussed the Google Street View service, which provides photographs of locations on Google Maps, and which will begin operating in Israel soon. At the meeting, security experts discussed the implications of such a service for privacy and public security, as well as its advantages for tourism and the country's image.

hacohen - Tali Mayer - February 22 2011
Tali Mayer

The ministers told the professionals to act to protect vital public interests. Israel will continue to cooperate with Google with the aim of launching the service here as soon as possible.

So what are we talking about, exactly?

Google has developed a sort of car installed with cameras that takes pictures of the entire 360-degree scene three to four meters above street level. People from Google ride in these vehicles and document streets, creating a long mosaic. Google is operating the project in 26 countries so far .... When it began, people in some places stopped the operation, claiming that it infringed on their privacy. At first, Google's representatives filmed sites and uploaded the results to the Internet without editing or concealing information.

In Europe, where the rules for defending privacy are similar to Israel's, operations were shut down when it was argued that the filming collected information that infringed on people's privacy; for example, license plate numbers on cars and the places where they were parked; the faces of people walking through particular areas ... and photos of private spaces such as private homes.

What can be done to protect privacy?

A program has been developed that automatically blurs details such as license plates and faces. When the program recognizes a plate or face, it blurs them. In this case, you see someone wearing certain clothing but you don't see his face. At the same time, the technology isn't 100 percent perfect and there are concerns that a particular identifying mark will not be blurred and the human eye will be able to see it. There are also errors in the opposite direction that blur details that are not supposed to be erased; for example, the face of the colonel at Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets.

How can I prevent myself from appearing on Google Street View?

Today, now that the authorities are involved, there are ways a person may request that the photo of his house be blurred. At Google they know the exact number of every home because it is produced with their electronic maps, so they can carry this out. Still, until a person approaches Google at his own initiative and asks that the photo be removed, the information will be on view.

Are you for the operation of Google Street View in Israel?

I come from the world of technology and information technology where there are many extraordinary developments, and I can see the positive implications. Of course, I don't want to bar new information technology. Nonetheless, when there are side effects, they have to be handled rationally, and that's what we plan to do.


Google is supposed to produce what amounts to a database, so it must request permission from the Justice Ministry. As the regulator of privacy safeguards, we'll give them guidelines. Because Google's operations will cover the entire country, we will conduct an open hearing in which we approach the public and ask if they have an opinion. We'll ask the people to express their position on our website. We also have a Facebook page and use Twitter. We won't conduct an advertising campaign on television, but we'll certainly inform the public.

Still, how can you make Google inform people that they are likely to be photographed?

I don't have details because Google hasn't even requested permission. The law mandates that the public be informed by anyone collecting information for a database. If it wants to operate the service, it must advertise in newspapers that it plans to photograph particular areas. Anyone who doesn't want to be photographed must approach Google ahead of time and ask not to be.

There is also an option to close the shutters at home during filming. It's clear that the public must be informed about these activities. If someone discovers himself on Street View and wants to have the image removed, there is a way to do this in the system. A person can erase himself. We will ask that the erasure and application processes be in Hebrew and not English.

Beyond the privacy issue and nondisclosure of military and security sites, we're talking about the fact that entities like Google collect characteristics about Web surfers.

Yes, the main issue is not the cars driving around photographing streets, but how these large corporations that handle information for free can put it to use: Google, Facebook or Twitter. At the end of the day, Google collects photos not for philanthropic purposes but to make money. Google is the dream of every advertiser; the company can identify with precision the characteristics of a surfer.

In Europe they have demanded that these companies keep information on surfers for no more than six to 18 months. We will ask that they limit this period, that their request to use the information be expressed more clearly, and that they explain what they intend to do with it. In the end it's each person's decision whether he wants personal information saved or not.