Mobile privacy flap take two: Starring Google, Skyhook, GPS Act

Summary:Google's Web mapping appears to be able to track your phone within feet of your actual location in yet another wrinkle in the ongoing location-based services and privacy debate. Meanwhile, the GPS Act is introduced.

Google's Web mapping appears to be able to track your phone within feet of your actual location in yet another wrinkle in the ongoing location-based services and privacy debate that will now hit Congress.

CNET News' Declan McCullagh reports that Google and Skyhook Wireless are linking location databases to hardware IDs and street addresses. The upshot: If someone knows a hardware ID, they may be able to find your physical address. CNET tested the location tracking with security researchers.

McCullagh adds:

Here's how it works: Wi-Fi-enabled devices, including PCs, iPhones, iPads, and Android phones, transmit a unique hardware identifier, called a MAC address, to anyone within a radius of approximately 100 to 200 feet. If someone captures or already knows that unique address, Google and Skyhook's services can reveal a previous location where that device was located, a practice that can reveal personal information including home or work addresses or even the addresses of restaurants frequented.

Creepy? You bet. However, I'll stick with my original argument after Apple wound up in the middle of a location tracking debate: Most consumers won't care. Privacy is the Web's currency and most folks will happily trade their locations for a 10 percent coupon.

Now some folks will be looking to disable these unique hardware IDs, but the majority of people won't understand enough about how this stuff works. In other words, we'll continue to be blissfully ignorant. And companies will continue to connect databases accordingly.

The big question is whether this data can be locked down. It's one thing to trust Google and Skyhook with information. It's quite another to trust some snoop.

Where's this privacy and location-based services mess headed? Most likely legislation. A bi-partisan mobile location privacy bill called the GPS Act will be introduced today to clarify the rules of engagement. The problem is that all of these legislative fixes usually carry a bunch of side effects that can also be problematic.

The GPS Act, which has been brewing since late March, aims to do the following:

  • Sets guidelines, legal procedures and protections on electronic devices and location tracking.
  • Government must show probable cause and warrant to acquire geolocational information.
  • The Act will apply to real-time tracking of person's current and past movements.
  • Creates criminal penalties for using a device to track a person.
  • Prohibits commercial service providers from sharing geolocation data with outside entities.

Setting parameters seems like a good move. You should know how your whereabouts are being collected. In the end, I'll wager that consumers fall in the blissfully unaware camp. After all, there's a location-based coupon at stake.

Topics: Legal, Google, Hardware, Mobility, Security


Larry Dignan is Editor in Chief of ZDNet and SmartPlanet as well as Editorial Director of ZDNet's sister site TechRepublic. He was most recently Executive Editor of News and Blogs at ZDNet. Prior to that he was executive news editor at eWeek and news editor at Baseline. He also served as the East Coast news editor and finance editor at CN... Full Bio

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