Google Street View cars nabbed locations of Wi-Fi devices

Google Street View cars nabbed locations of Wi-Fi devices

Summary: Google Street View cars are at the center of a brand new privacy scandal after it was revealed that the search giant collected the street addresses and unique identifying information for millions of laptops, media players, and other wireless devices.

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Google Street View cars are at the center of a brand new privacy scandal after it was revealed that the search giant collected the street addresses and unique identifying information for millions of laptops, media players, and other wireless devices. And until recently, the data was available to anyone who put in the right Google search.

The story emerged when the French data protection authority, known as the Commission Nationale de l'Informatique et des Libertés (CNIL), contacted our colleagues at CNET to confirm that its investigation had turned up the Street View cars' questionable data collection practices. Back in March, CNIL fined Google 100,000 Euros, or $143,000, but at that time it was unclear if the issue extended to client devices.

CNET's own investigation, published Monday, has the complete details on the history and context of this issue, including a list of questions that Google spokespeople have yet to answer. It's well worth a read for any dedicated follower of Google's privacy struggles.

But the really salient points are that Google has been collecting this data despite an earlier public statement claiming that "we collect the publicly broadcast MAC addresses of Wi-Fi access points." There's no opt-out method. And as noted above, the data was available through the Google search engine until late June.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the location information collection was uneven at best, with some users poking into the database only to find that their location data is sometimes years out of date. That suggests that the location logging wasn't systematic.

The simplest explanation is likely also the closest to the truth: Just as Google Street View cars accidentally grabbed unencrypted Wi-Fi traffic, leading to a privacy scandal and lawsuits a-plenty, the search company probably gathered this data by accident - a supposition backed up by the incompleteness of the location database. Regardless, the legality of Google's data collection is definitely in doubt.

Google's troubles in this area brings to mind the iPhone tracking scandal, which resulted in headline-making legal headaches for Apple. And I wouldn't be surprised if this issue brought a whole new slate of class action suits to Google's desk.

Topics: Google, Mobility, Networking, Wi-Fi

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25 comments
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  • Public Airwaves and Privacy

    If you value privacy, avoid wireless. Signals can be intercepted.

    If you want privacy AND want to use wireless, make sure your signal does not leave YOUR property.

    This seems to be struggling to create an issue where none exists.
    chipbeef
    • RE: Google Street View cars nabbed locations of Wi-Fi devices

      @chipbeef Wireless can secure enough. Wpa2 is very secure.
      Johnpford
  • Gathered by accident? I don't think so

    If all they where doing, or planning on doing, was photographing streets, why did they need to load and install WiFi detection and recording equipment into the unit?

    GPS, sure, but that different then wifi.

    The fact that it's speradic could be that their detection and storage method was flawed, nothing more,
    William Pharaoh
    • RE: Google Street View cars nabbed locations of Wi-Fi devices

      @William Pharaoh
      People should have nothing to hide is they are not terrorists or child molesters.
      May be the collection was done on behalf of the NSA like any patriotic corporation should do.
      Linux Geek
      • RE: Google Street View cars nabbed locations of Wi-Fi devices

        @Linux Geek
        Write whatever you like, nobody will take your comments seriously. So whats the point???
        owlnet
      • LOL! That was your best one yet!

        @Linux Geek

        I told you if you keep at it you would hit your stride again!
        William Pharaoh
      • RE: Google Street View cars nabbed locations of Wi-Fi devices

        @Linux Geek - Like your new logo loser!
        The Danger is Microsoft
      • RE: Google Street View cars nabbed locations of Wi-Fi devices

        @Linux Geek Your my new hero! Super funny that when I logged in, I also saw an Obama 2012 ad. just to the right of your coment.
        dnevill1
      • RE: Google Street View cars nabbed locations of Wi-Fi devices

        @Linux Geek
        geesssh ... you're just another troll for the "people should have nothing to hide" crowd. Obviously you dont value your privacy like the rest of us do. Shades of Na*i Germany!
        goldenpirate@...
      • RE: Google Street View cars nabbed locations of Wi-Fi devices

        @Linux Geek
        I cannot think from your point of view. Exactly how flexible do you have to be to insert your head in your rectum before you type into ZDnet anyway ?
        partman1969@...
    • The problem...

      @William Pharaoh
      ... would seem to be that people aren't at least bright enough to not broadcast their wide open, unsecured wireless signal to the world. There are enough simple to implement security steps that would prevent someone from compiling a list like this. Are they perfect, no. Closing and locking your door isn't perfect, but it will keep the average Joe from walking into your house off the street in broad daylight. Don't broadcast your RFID. That's like closing your door. Use at least basic WEP encryption for all wireless traffic. That's like locking your door. Use more robust encryption if you feel your door needs a dead bolt. When a car driving by can pick up your RFID and MAC address without slowing down, imagine what an actual criminal can accomplish.
      jasonp@...
      • RE: Google Street View cars nabbed locations of Wi-Fi devices

        @jasonp@... RFID? Aren't you referring to ssid? And if so I would say that's a weak defense at best. In fact you can open yourself to man in the middle attacks. As you said use wpa(Pref wpa2). Also use a complex password and don't give it out. Also don't leave the passwords at their defaults. I'm amazed at how many linksys routers are out there open with the blank login and admin password.
        Johnpford
    • Skyhok

      @William Pharaoh Several companies have already done this, including Skyhook.

      The collection of access point names is legitimate, if they are trying to get away from Skyhook licensing fees. Collecting data, other than the MAC address and SSID of the router is however wrong.

      This sounds like it is directly related to the first "scandal", they recorded both sides of the conversation, which means that they have the data from all devices in range, when they scanned, without filtering it... If this information was collected after the first scandal broke, then it is very bad, if it was collected with the first set of data, then this is old news.
      wright_is
  • Huh?

    So how would I accidentally map wifi locations in the course of taking pictures? Mapping wifi locations is not an integral or logical step in taking photos like keeping track of cell phone tower locations is in operating a telephone. While keeping a record that dates back for a long time might require some explanation on Apple's part, doing a completely unrelated task and publishing the results to the Internet definitely warrants some significant explaining in my eyes.
    WebSiteManager
  • When a companies motto is "Do Evil" what do you expect?

    Of course they collected it and of course they made it available to everyone everywhere.
    Johnny Vegas
  • Hmmmm

    Not really surprised.

    But I wonder how Linux Geek will react after seeing this article. Another conspiracy by Apple or Oracle or Adobe or Microsoft or ____ or all of them?
    Gis Bun
    • RE: Google Street View cars nabbed locations of Wi-Fi devices

      @Gis Bun
      You betcha!
      they are badmouthing google for doing what's right.
      see my post above.
      Linux Geek
      • RE: Google Street View cars nabbed locations of Wi-Fi devices

        @Linux Geek
        Yeah most people are not terrorists however some may not know they are broadcasting their finances, medical records, and any other number of personal (none of your business) files. They are ignorant of security settings on their network but not deserving of possible privacy violations of a company you deem so just. No company and I mean no company deserves such devotion that you espouse on Google. You are nuts.
        partman1969@...
  • RE: Google Street View cars nabbed locations of Wi-Fi devices

    The news was out for a few days now. The story that its 'collected by accident' is rubbish and only jack ass idiots will buy that argument.

    Google's actions may equate to criminal behaviour under european law. These 'software thugs' should be put in prison.
    owlnet
  • RE: Google Street View cars nabbed locations of Wi-Fi devices

    In their original Wi-Fi data collection scandal it seemed likely that it was just a mistake - for one thing, there was no plausible use for the data they collected.

    But this time you've gotta start to wonder what is going on. Have they learned nothing?

    Once again, though, I do wonder what they are using the data for so let me ask this. What MAC addresses do Android phones or the Chrome browser send to Google when they do location look ups? Do they send back all the MAC's they see, or just the MAC's from beacons?
    Trufagus