The brouhaha over privacy violations from Google's roving Street View photo-mapping cars has resulted in at least one new privacy
for individuals. The search-engine giant says it will allow owners of residential Wi-Fi routers to remove those devices from a registry of cellphone users that Google uses.
The change Tuesday came in response to investigations by European privacy regulators but applies worldwide. The regulators already had cautioned the company that use of the from Wi-Fi routers, without authorization by the owners, could violate their countries' laws. Some legal observers suggest that, had Google not taken this voluntary step, it would have been forced to do so legally.
On Google's European Public Policy Blog, the company's Global Privacy Counsel Peter Fleischer wrote Tuesday that, "at the request of several European data-protection authorities," the company is creating an opt-out service for router owners to remove themselves from Google's location services.
Fleischer added that more details would be available this fall, and noted that, because GPS was not always available and locations derived from cell towers were not accurate, the company had sometimes used Wi-Fi data from wireless access points to "improve our location-based services."
This data, he said, is sometimes used to help smartphones fix their location, adding that the signals do not identify people. The company will continue to use cell towers and satellites to allow Android-based devices to find their locations.
But, while Fleischer focused his post entirely on the use of the Wi-Fi router data by smartphones, the key controversy has been the capture of the data by the Street View vehicles.
Google has already agreed to allow German residents to opt out of having photos of their property in Street View, prior to the launching of that country's maps last fall. Google's panoramic maps of Germany now include some buildings blacked out. Google also has agreed to delete Wi-Fi data "accidentally collected" in all countries.
Street View Controversy
The Street View controversy stems from the collection of private wireless data by Google vehicles, which have driven down streets worldwide to collect photos for use on the company's Street View application within Google Maps. Google said that about 600 GB of data, in 30 countries, had been mistakenly collected.
At first, Alan Eustace, Google senior vice president of engineering and , acknowledged Google collected SSID from wireless-router signals that the cars passed on the streets. The SSID information contains the Wi-Fi network name and MAC addresses, which are the unique numbers given to a Wi-Fi router. Initially, Google said it did not collect "payload data," or the actual data sent over the network.
But Eustace later noted that "we have been mistakenly collecting samples of payload data" from open networks, including fragments of websites, emails, and possibly personal banking data. Eustace added that the data had never been used in Google products, and that only fragments of payload data were collected.
The reason payload data was collected at all, he said, was that code to do so was inadvertently left in the software used to collect the SSID and MAC addresses, even though the project leaders did not want or need the information. CEO Eric Schmidt has said this software was "in clear violation" of Google's policies.
Posted: 2011-09-16 @ 7:16pm PT
This just underscores just how much the Internet privacy discussion is being framed by those who profit from harvesting our personal information.
Once again, the norm for big business is to place the onus on individuals to opt-out of being tracked and allowing our information to be inventoried. This is routinely done as ad networks sell personal user profiles to advertisers, but this is a new twist. Google is now using your Wi-Fi signal to help them sell location-based advertising.
Would it be OK for a company to use high tech listening devices to listen to conversations it could hear through your walls and show you advertising based on your conversations?
Individual consumers have no idea how Google uses these systems to track their every move, and there’s little reason for the company to educate them because it has not needed anyone’s permission to track them. Many would argue that Google should offer an “opt-in” option, and then convince people that the service benefits them somehow.
This story clearly illustrates just how far we still have to go to protect our privacy.