Europe Starts To Crack Down On Retail Data Collection

As Google—which has been toying with capturing retailers' in-store images for its search database—and mobile projects have been pushing the data-capture envelope, retailers have been able to sit back and think of 100 ways to use that data once it's organized and made accessible. Even the petabytes of free CRM data floating around in social sites are starting to be spidered and analyzed, not to mention payment cards designed for data-sharing and even more wacky ideas.

But we have now seen the first concrete government effort to slow down that data flow, and it comes from European Union data privacy regulators. An EU letter said that not only must Google provide more warnings to consumers before it sends cameras out to shoot street views, but that Google "should shorten the length of time for which it keeps the uncensored photographs it takes from one year to six months," according to the U.K. news outlet The Telegraph. "Google said its need to retain the original Street View images for a full year is 'legitimate and justified,'" the story reported.

It's not clear whether these concerns will move much beyond Europe, although Canadian government officials also take their privacy much more seriously than do U.S. government agents. But if these rulings continue, it raises some fascinating questions.

What if a consumer took similar image captures with her mobile phone? Indeed, aren't these exactly the type of pictures that European, Asian and American tourists take routinely? Will this six-month rule apply to them? What about retail surveillance footage or, for that matter, police surveillance footage? Is the concern the images or the fact that someone is spending the money to aggregate and categorize those images for easy discovery?

In the U.S., police and some marketers have been accelerating their use of high-speed cameras designed to capture huge quantities of license plates and to record that data for an extended period. Some retailers have been toying with using that data for quite a few store services. Will that type of information be limited to six months? What if a murder is discovered eight months after another crime is committed and police want to go back and see who parked near that location?

What the EU is trying to do is noble and all that, but we’re not so sure it makes sense in an age where millions of consumers are walking around with mobile phones that take high-quality photos and videos. The reality is that life is being captured and recorded by everyone, from every angle. Why not allow—heck, encourage—a business like Google to capture, analyze and make sense of as much of that data as possible so it can actually help people and businesses?