Google was forced to remove photographs of a naked child from its Street View service last night as a row over internet privacy escalated into one about public safety.
The Independent on Sunday alerted the internet search giant after finding images of the toddler, playing at a family summer picnic in a garden square in north London, captured permanently on the revolutionary mapping system.
Britain's privacy watchdog, the Information Commissioner Richard Thomas, is considering an investigation into Google if more images of naked children are found to have been picked up by its cameras and made available to internet users.
Google has had hundreds of requests for images to be removed since it launched Street View on Thursday, including pictures of members of the public leaving sex shops or vomiting in the street. But the picture of a young child suggests the service could be exploited for more sinister purposes.
Last night it also emerged that Tony and Cherie Blair are among hundreds of people who have demanded that close-up photographs of their homes be removed. The Blairs' home in Connaught Square, west London, was blacked out on Friday after nearly 24 hours on the web.
Pictures of Downing Street were also taken down, although it is not a private address and the location is photographed by millions of tourists every year.
The images of a child was taken last summer and show a typical scene of garden square life in a quiet side-street – a location that many families would deem semi-private and where they would have a reasonable expectation of privacy.
In one picture, the face of a three-year-old child, playing happily in the sunshine, is clearly identifiable. The newspaper is not naming the address for privacy reasons, but the square is just yards from a Cabinet minister's home, although the children are not related to that minister.
Google disputes that the child was clearly identifiable and says the photo was taken from a public location.
The images of the garden square were removed by Google within an hour of the company being informed yesterday. The picture had been found by the Independent on Sunday within only 10 minutes, suggesting there could be many similar images on the website.
The Tory MP Edward Garnier said: "The right to privacy, and not to become the victim of some corporation's profit-making activities, is clearly something that needs to be protected. We all have an expectation that our privacy should not be invaded or exploited for commercial purposes."
A spokesman for the Information Commissioner's Office said: "We will consider the IoS story carefully. Images of children must be properly blurred. If there is an underlying problem, for example if what has been uncovered is systemic, then we will take up the matter with Google.
"It is Google's responsibility to ensure all images of adults and children are satisfactorily blurred. Individuals who feel that an image does identify them [and are unhappy with this] should contact Google direct to get the image removed.
"Individuals who have raised concerns with Google about their image being included – and who do not think they have received a satisfactory response – can complain to the ICO."
A spokeswoman for Google said last night: "We will remove these pictures as quickly as possible." She insisted that the pictures had been taken on a public road – although the street is not a thoroughfare. "This is still on the side of a public road. It [the camera] takes pictures at any time, and it [records] a fleeting moment."
Asked whether Google was concerned that there would be other pictures of children, for example outside schools, the spokeswoman said: "Most of the faces are blurred. If they haven't been, parents can hit a button and remove it [the image]. They show what is going on in the street at a particular moment; they are not live."
Google has defended its use of the mapping service, which covers more than 36000kms and 25 UK cities, saying that the degree of clarity of the images is no different to those shown in estate agents' literature.
But there are question marks over whether, in reality, an estate agent would be able to take photographs of naked young children playing outside, without being challenged.
In a fresh twist, the Metropolitan Police denied claims by Google that it had been consulted about Street View prior to its launch. A spokesman for Scotland Yard said: "We have not been involved in discussions with Google regarding their product development."
After earlier insisting that "99.99 per cent" of faces featured in Street View were blurred, Google admitted yesterday that this had been a "figure of speech" as it was clear that thousands of people can be identified. "The technique is not totally perfect," the spokeswoman said. "The idea is not to blur every single face, only those that can be clearly identified."
Among faces not obscured was a police officer standing guard outside the London home of Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, which was at the centre of a row over her expenses.
The Blairs' grand Georgian house, with two police officers stationed outside, can still be viewed from an angle, but a close-up image of the property has been removed. A spokesman for the Blairs could not be contacted for comment. Google refused to comment on the Blairs' individual case, but said images were being blacked out at the "user's request".
The company's discomfort was compounded by a former criminal, Michael Fraser, who wrote in The Sun yesterday that Street View was a "gift to criminals".
Germans in the country's northern state of Schleswig-Holstein are threatening to take legal action against Google because of fears that its photographs of the region's towns and streets are in breach of the country's strict privacy laws.
A campaign against the internet giant has been launched from the small provincial town of Molfsee, near Kiel, and is being eagerly watched by dozens of other towns and cities in the region which has a population of close to three million.
"We are not going to let this happen," said Reinhold Harwart, Molfsee's conservative mayor. "This is opening people's houses and homes to criminals. All this information is taken back to the United States and being processed. This can't be allowed," he said.
Similar concerns have been voiced by Marit Hansen, the state's deputy officer in charge of data protection, and by Peter Schaar, Germany's federal data protection chief, who said he has major misgivings about Google Street View. His office is currently investigating the issue.
The campaigners want Google to be obliged to obtain a street permit, similar to those held by vendors and market stall holders, before they take photographs. "We would then have the option of refusing them permission, which is what we would do," Mr Harwart said.
Google's spokesman for northern Europe claims, however, that Germany's streets are public property and that the concern does not need a permit to take pictures. "We are not a tool designed for criminals," a spokesman said.
Google Street View started photographing Germany in 2008 and the company has already taken pictures of many of the country's major towns and cities. Harwart said his campaign planned to sue Google Street View if the concern was found to be in breach of privacy laws.
- THE INDEPENDENT