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A Sidewalk Disappearing Act

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In 2008, responding to privacy concerns, Google started to blur the faces of people caught by car-mounted cameras and shown in its Google Street View mapping service. Researchers in California believe they have now come up with a better solution--software that automatically removes any trace that a person was in a scene.

The approach protects people's privacy while also providing a cleaner street-level view, says Arturo Flores, a computer-science graduate student in the Artificial Intelligence Group at the University of California, San Diego. "Even with face blurring, it is still possible to identify a person," Flores says. Clothing, body shape, and height, combined with a location, can be enough to recognize someone, he says.

Google's Street View vans use nine roof-mounted cameras to take regular shots of the scene around them. These are then stitched together to produce a near-seamless panoramic view. But automatically removing people from thousands of varied images, each showing different scenes, is a challenge.

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