Apple workers filming Berlin with camera backpacks

The Silicon Valley giant is mapping places unreachable by car - bringing up new privacy issues.

Science fiction or Apple Maps?
Science fiction or Apple Maps?imago

Berlin-Summer, sun, lots of naked skin. Chances are that some Berliners will be hanging out topless on their picnic blanket as an Apple worker with a camera backpack walks by. Apples assures us that faces will be pixellated. And those who can still be identified by tattoos or other features can take legal action, according to state data protection officers.

For the first time in Germany, Apple staff are roaming cities with such camera backpacks in order to reach places that are not accessible by car. The project kicked off in Berlin on 26 July and may last until the end of October. Both Apple Maps and its Google Streetview equivalent "Look Around" are planning major expansion of areas covered.

Apple is recording pedestrian paths in other German cities as well, including Potsdam and the districts of Barnim, Havelland and Oberhavel in Brandenburg. The corporation said several dozen people were on the move throughout Germany with the backpacks. Faces and vehicle registration numbers are blurred, the company explained in a document explaining Apple Maps data collection. Anyone can ask for their home to be pixellated if desired.

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Nudity does not necessarily fall under data protection

The Tagesspiegel first reported that privacy officials were unaware of Apple's plan. Simon Rebiger, spokesman for Berlin's Commissioner for Data Protection, told the Berliner Zeitung that Apple was not required to apply for permission to carry out such photography.

"But it would have been nice if we had been informed about it beforehand," he says.

Unlike Apple, Google involved the Commissioner for Data Protection Maja Smoltczyk in advance so that she could react to the project and inform the public in Berlin, Rebiger explained. Since the news about Apple broke, an article has been published on Berlin's Data Protection Commissioner's website informing citizens about the ways they can submit their objections to their image being used by Apple.

Despite the fact that people's faces are blurred, transparency is important. "Of course, it is always possible that people may still think that they can be identified there," says the data protection officer. Rebiger recommends that those affected contact their office with a complaint if their objection to Apple is unsuccessful. The complaint would then be forwarded to the data protection authority in Bavaria, which is responsible for Apple in Germany.

The Bavarian State Office for Data Protection was informed in advance about Apple's camera backpacks, spokesperson Mirka Möldner told the Berliner Zeitung. In its 2020 report, the office mentions the right to object. At the suggestion of the Bavarian authority, Apple also provided a postal address for submission of objections.

However, people captured sunbathing topless in the park who recognise themselves on Apple Maps cannot always take action under data protection law. "Data protection always refers to personal data. It would have to be examined in each individual case whether the person is identifiable on the basis of physical characteristics or local references," says Rebiger. A local reference could be the front garden of a family home, for example. In such a case, he recommends complaining even if the face is unrecognisable, so that the situation is rectified accordingly.

For questions on privacy or requests regarding the blurring of faces, number plates or homes on Apple Maps, write to:

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