CONTROVERSIAL internet “spy cars” have been spotted in York, prompting an outcry from privacy campaigners.

Amateur snappers have captured the cars driving around the city, complete with roof-mounted cameras. They are part of a high-tech online mapping project by internet giant Google, but city leaders say the firm may have breached York’s city centre traffic rules. Council officials will now write to Google demanding answers.

Google is seeking to photograph streets, parks and buildings around the world for its Street View eye-level photo-mapping system. It has already surveyed cities across the United States and is now moving across Europe.

In recent weeks, car’s matching the description of Google’s have been reported in various parts of York, and pictures posted on the photo-sharing website flickr. Site user Carl Spencer captured an image of a car turning into Manthorpe Walk, Acomb, on September 8 and two days later, fellow user James Gunn snapped one driving down Micklegate in the city centre. Another user spotted the car in Dringhouses.

Privacy International director Simon Davies said people going about their everyday life were being made part of a worldwide commercial project without consent.

He said: “It would have been nice and appropriate and perfectly legal for Google to go to the residents of York and ask their opinion on this, if for no other reason than to build trust.”

Google has said it will use face-blurring technology to protect individuals’ privacy, but Mr Davies said he had asked for details of the technology and got no reply. He accused Google of “arrogance” for thinking it could “go anywhere in the world and do anything it wants with no authority whatsoever”.

A City of York Council spokeswoman said: “As a rule of thumb, and out of general professional courtesy, we would normally expect organisations to contact us to seek permission to film in the city.

“They would also need special permission, and a permit, to use a vehicle for filming in the pedestrianised heart of the city. However, we are not aware of Google making any such requests.”

She said the council’s city centre manager Paul Barrett planned to contact Google, asking what they were doing, where, when and why. The council will then decide whether it needed to take further action.

Google spokeswoman Laura Scott said the firm did not yet know when the photos of York would be put on its website. She said: “We are at the driving stage in Europe. Once we have all those European photos we will patch them together.”

The Information Commissioner has declared it is satisfied with Google’s activities, and says adequate privacy safeguards are in place to prevent individuals being linked to a certain place at a certain time. People can request they be removed from photographs in which they appear.

Ms Scott said Street View was a “fantastic” way for people to view Britain’s culture and architecture, particularly during the economic downturn.