A Cow With No Name: Google Blurs Bovine Face For Privacy

Sep 16, 2016
Originally published on September 16, 2016 4:41 pm

Issues of digital privacy are rarely this amoosing.

In August 2015, Google Street View captured images along the banks of the River Cam, in Cambridge, England. As the cameras snapped their way through a meadow called Coe Fen, a cow crossed the road.

Google apparently decided it would behoove it to add an identity-protecting blur.

That is to say — the cow beside the Cam in Coe Fen was caught on camera, incognito.

When an editor at The Guardian found the blurred face this week, he took a screenshot and shared it on Twitter, much to the Internet's delight.

A spokesperson for Google told NPR that the act of bovine privacy protection was due to an overactive automated system.

Here's Google's statement in full:

"We thought you were pulling the udder one when we herd the moos, but it's clear that our automatic face-blurring technology has been a little overzealous.

"Of course, we don't begrudge this cow milking its five minutes of fame."

("Pull the other one," as Monty Python fans might remember, is a Britishism akin to "you're pulling my leg.")

According to Google's privacy policy, that technology "is designed to blur all identifiable faces and license plates within Google-contributed imagery," and people can request that their entire house or car be blurred. Once Google blurs an image, it's permanent, the company says.

The Guardian notes this is not the first time an animal's face has been concealed out of beefed-up privacy concerns — earlier this year, West Midlands police blurred the faces of three stolen lambs.

And Slate points out that, according to some researchers, face-blurring is a load of bull anyway. Software can be trained to see through such efforts to conceal identities, the researchers say.

In the case of the cow at Coe Fen, it's substantially easier to uncover the would-be concealed identity.

Just back up one step along the path in Google Street View, embedded above, and all will be revealed.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And now the story of a cow incognito. Google Street View took a photo that was unintentionally hilarious, and the Internet is milking it for all its worth. NPR's Camila Domonoske joins us to explain.

Hey there, Camila.

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: Hi, Audie.

CORNISH: All right, so paint me a picture. What do you see if you load Street View at this one spot in England?

DOMONOSKE: So you see a stream, and you see a cow crossing a path with its face precisely blurred out. So you can see everything else about the picture, except for the identifying features of this one cow.

CORNISH: OK, the identifying...

DOMONOSKE: (Laughter).

CORNISH: ...Features (laughter) of a cow. Do we know why this cow is blurred?

DOMONOSKE: Yeah, so Street View has an automatic system that detects faces and also license plates and blurs them. These are supposed to be the faces of people. There's no interest in protecting the privacy of cows. But in this case...

CORNISH: Yeah, did the cow request it?

DOMONOSKE: (Laughter).

CORNISH: There's many questions here.

DOMONOSKE: Right? And what's also peculiar is there's a cow immediately behind the first cow, face entirely un-blurred (laughter).

CORNISH: Just out to the world, inappropriate.

DOMONOSKE: Yep.

CORNISH: So how did people find out about this?

DOMONOSKE: So an editor at The Guardian zoomed in and saw this single shot and tweeted about it. A lot of people had fun tweeting in response, asking if the cameras had to ask the cow to mooove (ph) out of the way, saying this was an example of Google teat view. And then Google itself actually responded. And I'm just going to go ahead and read their statement.

(Reading) We thought you were pulling the udder one when we herd the moos. And that's H-E-R-D (laughter). But it's clear that our automatic face-blurring technology has been a little overzealous. Of course, we don't begrudge this cow milking its five minutes of fame.

CORNISH: Now - so should this actually make us feel good about how far Google is taking our privacy concerns?

DOMONOSKE: Probably not. There was actually just this week a paper that came out from some researchers who suggested that it's possible to teach technology to, essentially, un-blur images. So, you know, we can make all the puns we like, but it doesn't really say anything profound about security on the internet today.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Camila Domonoske, reporter for The Two-Way blog.

Thanks so much.

DOMONOSKE: (Laughter) You're so welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.