How to keep your Wi-Fi location out of Google

Summary:Little did we know that those cute Google Street View cars were also mapping our Wi-Fi access points. Now, you can opt out of Google's Wi-Fi maps.

Busted! A Google Street View car.

Busted! A Wi-Fi snooping Google Street View car.

This summer it was revealed that Google Street View cars, besides taking photos of your neighborhood, were also collecting the street addresses, Wi-Fi service set identifier (SSID), and the unique Media Access Control (MAC) identification information for computers, Wi-Fi access points (AP)s, and routers. Worse still, Google was, apparently by accident, also grabbing unencrypted passwords and e-mails. Yack!

While Google quickly backed off grabbing people's personal data, the company's Google Street View cars are continuing to pick up Wi-Fi access points and routers' unique MACs, SSIDs, and physical addresses.

Google uses this information to improve its Google Map and other location-based services, but what if you don't want to contribute to this effort? Until recently, you were stuck.

Now, Google will let you opt-out. Frankly, I think it would be a lot better if they only recorded your Wi-Fi equipment's location if you opted in, but it is what it is.

Here's how you do it. The key is you have to change the SSID of your Wi-Fi access point so that it ends with "_nomap". For example, if your SSID is "catdog" you would need to change it to "catdog_nomap".

Here are instructions on some of the most common Wi-Fi AP brands.

On many access points, you can access its controls by which you can change its SSID using the following steps:

  • Use an Ethernet cable to make a physical connection between your access point and your computer.
  • Find the IP address for your the default gateway/AP. To do this:
  • On Windows, type 'ipconfig' into the command prompt (accessed from the start menu).
  • On Mac OS, type 'ifconfig' into the command prompt.
  • On Linux, type 'ifconfig' into the shell prompt.
  • Once you have the default gateway (it will look like 192.168.0.1), type it into the address bar of your Web browser, this will take you to the Web-based control panel for your access point.
  • You will then need to sign in to your AP's control panel.
  • Here, for example, is what it looks like to change the SSID on my Netgear N750 Wireless Dual Band Gigabit Router (WNDR4000).

    First, I need to go to my AP address from a Web browser. In my case, that was 192.168.0.130. More common AP addresses are 192.168.0.1 and 192.168.1.1. Once there, I needed to login to my system. If you're still using your AP's company provide default login and password, once you're in, take this opportunity to change it. Until you do, anyone who knows the device defaults can take over your AP.

    How to set the SSID on a Netgear Router.

    How to set the SSID on a Netgear Router.

    Once in my Netgear device, I needed to Wireless Settings. Then, to set it up so that any wandering Google Street View car won't collect its location, I changed its SSID from Gith-5 to Gith-5_nomap. Google hopes that since "this method of opt out can also be seen by other location service providers, and we hope the industry will respect the "_nomap" tag." Then, the next time a device with a "reliable channel" tries to use your AP's information to fix its location, Google will take note that you no longer want to be in their databases and remove your devices' data.

    And, what's a "reliable channel?" According to Google, it's a Wi-Fi device, like an Android phone that tries to use your AP to fix its location. So, for example, to get your home or office Wi-Fi off Google's location service in a hurry, just use Google Maps' My Location feature on a Wi-Fi enabled tablet or smartphone, and Google will note the change in your SSID and take your equipment off its maps.

    That sounds good, but besides putting the burden on you to opt out of their system, Google's solution introduces another minor security/privacy problem. You see some people don't want to broadcast that they're providing any Wi-Fi services at all, so they don't broadcast any SSID.

    Now, yes, finding an "invisible" SSID is trivial. Most Wi-Fi network utilities like inSSIDer, Kismet, and NetStumbler can do in seconds. But, many people still don't broadcast SSID so they can avoid would-be casual Wi-Fi users. With the Google "fix" though you have to use a SSID.

    Don't think, by the by, that you've escaped Google's Argus gaze if you haven't been using an SSID. It's the MAC, which all networked devices have, that Google uses to uniquely identify and locate your AP or router.

    Personally, I'm not going to bother to change my Wi-Fi APs' SSIDs. It's too much trouble for too little value. But, if you want to hide from Google, well, now you know how. Good luck.

    Related Stories:

    Google offers Street View opt-out for Wi-Fi mapping; Unethical snooping, yet we must opt-out?

    Google's mistake leads to a lot of collected Wi-Fi payload data via Street View

    Google admits Street View cars collected e-mails, passwords

    Google Street View cars nabbed locations of Wi-Fi devices

    Google can be sued for Street View Wi-Fi snooping

    Topics: Mobility, Google, Networking, Wi-Fi

    About

    Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols, aka sjvn, has been writing about technology and the business of technology since CP/M-80 was the cutting edge, PC operating system; 300bps was a fast Internet connection; WordStar was the state of the art word processor; and we liked it.His work has been published in everything from highly technical publications... Full Bio

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