* Controversial street-level image maps launched in UK
* Allows users to navigate 360-degree city streetscapes
* Google blurs faces, licence plates to protect privacy
By Paul Sandle
LONDON, March 19 (Reuters) - Google Inc (GOOG.O) has launched its controversial street-level photo maps in 25 cities in the UK, with new technology to address people’s fears of being captured in the Internet search leader’s images.
The service, named “Street View”, allows users to navigate around a 360-degree view of city streets, including buildings, traffic and people, using pictures taken by Google’s camera vehicles.
Google said it was addressing privacy concerns by using software to blur images of pedestrians or car licence plates.
“Privacy is really important to us. We think we have largely addressed those issues,” Ed Parsons, a geospatial technologist for Google, told a news conference on Thursday.
“Anything that can identify an individual person or car, we are doing our best to try to remove (that) image.”
The privacy features were developed in consultation with the UK privacy commissioner, and Parsons said facial blurring worked in 99.9 percent of cases. Another technology could be used to complete the job if necessary, he said.
Users could also flag an image to Google if it raised privacy concerns or contained inappropriate content, and Google said the image would be removed or blacked out in “almost all cases”.
The 360-degree street-level view gives Web users the experience of walking down the road and being able to look around from side to side to see the cityscape in any particular direction.
Since its original introduction in 2007 in San Francisco, Google has introduced the Street Views features as part of its Google Maps service for 100 cities in nine countries.
Google was slow to introduce Street Views into Britain, partly in response to the instant uproar caused by its initial introduction in the United States, and also, partly due to bad weather conditions.
Images of people sunbathing, possibly breaking into properties and entering an adult bookstore were found when the service was first launched.
Google, however, said the imagery used was no different from what a person could readily see or capture walking down the street, and it had taken steps, including blurring and image removal, to ensure it respected privacy.
The company uses cars equipped with 30 special cameras to photograph public streets in major cities around the world. Spotting the cars became a Web fad this summer in Britain, with Register.com publishing a Google Map where users could contribute photos.
Street View UK is available in 25 UK cities, including London, Belfast, Birmingham, Edinburgh and Cardiff. (Reporting by Paul Sandle; Editing by David Cowell)