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

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 Guardianfound 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 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.