How Google--and everyone else--gets Wi-Fi location data

How Google--and everyone else--gets Wi-Fi location data

Summary: Google doesn't use StreetView cars to pick up Wi-Fi location data any more. They use your smartphones and tablets instead.

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Before there was location services Google Maps... there were other maps.

Before there were location services and Google Maps...

When I wrote about Google making it possible to opt-out of their Wi-Fi access point mapping program, I made a mistake. I thought Google was still using its StreetView cars to pick up Wi-Fi locations. Nope, Eitan Bencuya, a Google spokesperson, tells me that Google no longer uses StreetView cars to collect location information. So, how does Google collect Wi-Fi location data? They use you.

Or, to be more exact, they use your Android phone or tablet. But, it's not just Google. Apple and Microsoft do the same thing with their smartphones and tablets.

I'd missed this, but earlier this year Apple, Google and other companies got into hot-water because they've been collecting location data from your devices for some time now. These days, it seems, it's the only way any of the big companies pick up Wi-Fi location data.

How it works, according to Google, is that the Android Location Services periodically checks on your location using GPS, Cell-ID, and Wi-Fi to locate your device. When it does this, your Android phone will send back publicly broadcast Wi-Fi access points' Service set identifier (SSID) and Media Access Control (MAC) data. Again, this isn't just how Google does it; it's how everyone does it. It's Industry practice for location database vendors.

Google tells me that the location checks are made periodically. You don't need to be using Google Maps, Latitude or other geolocation-based application. It just happens.

You can check on this yourself by going to your Android phone and then going to Settings/Location and check Google Location Services or Security/Use Wireless Network off and on. When you check it on you'll get a location consent agreement. This reads: "Allow Google's location service to collect anonymous location data. Collection will occur even when no applications are running."

You don't have to use Google's Wi-Fi location service. You can elect to just use your device's built-in GPS, but the more data points your smartphone has to work with the more accurately it can fix your location and thus make location-based services more accurate and useful. In other words, if you use Wi-Fi on an Android device to help pin your position down though you'll also be contributing to creating Google's maps.

If all that makes you feel a little queasy-what is Apple, Google, and Microsoft doing with this information--well each of them states that they're using the data anonymously. As Google's Director of Public Policy Alan Davidson said in a statement to the Senate judiciary subcommittee on privacy, technology and the law this May:

While location-based services are already showing great value to users, Google recognizes the particular privacy concerns that come with the collection and storage of location information. That's why we don't collect any location information - any at all - through our location services on Android devices unless the user specifically chooses to share this information with Google. We also give users clear notice and control; the set-up process asks users if they would like to "allow Google's location service to collect anonymous location data."

And even after opting in, we give users a way to easily turn off location sharing with Google at any time they wish. The location services in our Android operating system embody the transparency and control principles that we use to guide our privacy process.

Still don't trust them? Well, you can always write your Congress-critter and ask them to support the GPS act, which is meant to set guidelines, legal procedures and protections on electronic devices and location tracking. Specifically it states that the

  • 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.

The GPS act still hasn't passed into law, but it's slowly drawing broader support.

In the meantime, if you're really that concerned about the possibility of your phone being tracked, then just don't use Wi-Fi or cellular services on your Android phone, or any other device, to help fix your location. On my Droid 2 phone with Android 2.3, the option to do this is Setting/Location & Security settings/Standalone GPS services.

As for me, I find the advantages of having knowing exactly where I am and where the hotel, restaurant, theater, or what-have you are in relationship to my location to be worth the vanishingly small chance that someone is tracking me with this data.

Related Stories:

How to keep your Wi-Fi location out of Google

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

Google defends mobile privacy standards at Senate hearing

Google Android, Apple iPhone geolocation tracking flap: Disclosure is everything

Topics: Google, Hardware, Mobility, Networking, Wi-Fi

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24 comments
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  • RE: How Google-and everyone else-gets Wi-Fi location data

    So where is all the outrage directed at Microsoft? I am willing to bet the usual trolls will be here to defend the hive! Sure we will all see the usual B.S. on how Apple, and Google, are evil; ignoring Microsoft is doing the same thing, just lying about it.
    Rick_Kl
    • RE: How Google-and everyone else-gets Wi-Fi location data

      @Rick_Kl No one is complaining about the company deliberately seeking wifi hotspots, but they will complain about giving too much personal information to these companies if used against them.
      Maarek
    • RE: How Google-and everyone else-gets Wi-Fi location data

      @Rick_Kl

      Good point, but pointing your finger at Microsoft doesn't make your beloved Apple any less guilty.
      UrNotPayingAttention
      • RE: How Google-and everyone else-gets Wi-Fi location data

        @UrNotPayingAttention both Apple, and Google, have been called out over this. My issue is: Why is the worst offender (Microsoft) constantly given a pass? If you do not think Microsoft is not worse than Google, as far as data mining, you are a Windows fanboy. If you ranted about Apple keeping a location database on your phone, yet give Microsoft a pass for keeping a database (with a device specific ID) on a remote sever, you are beyond help.
        Rick_Kl
    • Smoke and mirrors once again, Rick_K?

      @Rick_Kl
      If I let emotions dictate my respones, I imagine I would be upset that you feel that I, and other users of ZDNet, are of such limited intelligence that we would not notice your continued use of the "smoke and mirrors" tactic.

      Pointing towards Microsoft in an effort to draw attention away from the wrong doings of Apple does not work.

      I imagine that your natual response to defend the Apple hive clouds your judgement, otherwise you would not cling to such a foolish notion that you misdirection attempts actually work as you believe.

      :|
      Tim Cook
      • RE: How Google-and everyone else-gets Wi-Fi location data

        @Mister Spock nothing to do with emotions. Logically if Apple, and Google, are taken to task fir transgressions;Microsoft should also be taken to task. Yet up to this point Microsoft has been given a pass. Microsoft is collecting more data than the other two, while claiming to respect use privacy.
        Rick_Kl
    • RE: How Google-and everyone else-gets Wi-Fi location data

      @Rick_Kl - Answer? Windows Phone has a tiny market share. Microsoft have got in lots of stick over the years. Google Netscape and Windows Media Player for instance.
      bradavon
    • RE: How Google-and everyone else-gets Wi-Fi location data

      @Rick_Kl
      Hmm, no complaints here...my Windows Mobile running OS6.1 has no tracking what-so-ever. So I'm comfortable in the knowledge I am not being tracked by *MY* windows phone!
      tech_ed@...
  • I call BS on this

    The only Android device we own are a couple of Nook Colors that have been rooted to Gingerbread and CM7. Nook does not have a GPS receiver and is never used outside, always indoors. Our smartphones are Windows Phones after we switched from iPhones.

    The only other Google products we use are GMail and Chrome, running on Windows and Mac. All search is through Bing.

    So how come when I fired up the Nooks right after I rooted them did Google Maps on the device pinpoint exactly where our house is? How does Google Maps on the PC/Mac show my exact location even down to Streetview level?

    And how did Google Maps exactly pinpoint our physical location on the Nook when we were visiting my Mother in Law in England? She doesn't own a smartphone. She only uses a Mac on here WiFi. The last I heard, GPS requires line of sight anyway.

    To humor Rick_Kl, yes my Windows Phone does know where I am because that's how smartphone location services work, although I never use Wifi because it's a battery drain. I allow location services because as SJVN rightly points out, it's useful on a mobile device.

    However Bing on PC or Mac does not know where I am, whatever the browser (Chrome, IE9 or Safari.) The Bing homepage thinks I am two towns away because it's picking up my ISP's (Comcast) local address range not where I actually am.

    I guess Google must use magic GPS that has X-Ray capabilities and can even work on Android devices that don't have a GPS receiver. Amazing!
    dazzlingd
    • They hope you do not notice the vehicle

      @dazzlingd
      with the mast mounted multi-directional camera and wifi antenna array driving up and down your street.

      :|
      Tim Cook
      • RE: How Google-and everyone else-gets Wi-Fi location data

        @Mister Spock but who is that vehicle taking pictures for? Unless you know for sure, do not jump to conclusions.
        Rick_Kl
    • Someone else

      Because your mothers *neighbour* had accepted their sniffing terms, and in the process it sniffed your mothers router SSID.

      So when you connected to that router, it knows where the router is, even without asking your permission to obtain its location data.

      Welcome to creeping loss of privacy.

      And you are contributing to it, with your Windows phones location services turned on, you may well be sniffing the surrounding Wifi SSID's including your mothers.

      Even if you don't turn on Wifi, you're still probably leaking the GSM tower id's.
      guihombre
      • RE: How Google-and everyone else-gets Wi-Fi location data

        @guihombre

        Or it could also be detecting other WiFi AP's, and once it got connected to the network it used them to determine location. My iPod Touch knows where I am, and it doesn't have a GPS receiver either.
        aep528
  • Can you legally opt IN

    They're collecting location from surrounding WiFi devices. You decide *not* to 'opt out', while that's fine for you to opt in, you are opting in for everyone around you too.
    BUT YOU DON'T HAVE THEIR PERMISSION TO OPT IN FOR THEM.

    So you can't meaningfully opt in to these abuses of mobile phone hardware. So giving an opt out, then saying 'well the user didn't opt out' is meaningless.
    guihombre
  • RE: How Google-and everyone else-gets Wi-Fi location data

    Yeah, because I'm worried the government is tracking me, a random owner of a cell phone. I have nothing to hide. If you kill someone, the cops should be allowed to find out where you've been. If you haven't, no one's going to tell your mommy on you.
    IamTavEl
    • RE: How Google-and everyone else-gets Wi-Fi location data

      @IamTavEl - THANK YOU for a rational comment on this series of articles! A lone voice of reason in a sea of tinfoil hats...
      d.gruntled
  • RE: How Google-and everyone else-gets Wi-Fi location data

    Some years ago, police and government officials were highly concerned that mobile phones would bring new anonymity to suspects and make wiretaps all but impossible. This was after hundreds of millions of dollars was spent to automate wiretaps after the CALEA law was passed.

    Now they are all smiles and cheers, as cellular technology has given them amazing new capabilities to not only identify, but track movements, determine associations, and even identify potential crime locations before the crime is committed. Part of it comes from the mandatory GPS chip, but mostly it comes from the collection of many bits of data correlated by massive analytic engines. The wonderful part is that the government didn't have to pay to develop these systems, the carriers and companies like Google did all the hard work, just to do advertising!
    terry flores
  • RE: How Google-and everyone else-gets Wi-Fi location data

    This is old news...
    dtdono0
  • RE: How Google-and everyone else-gets Wi-Fi location data

    police and government officials need the info but hackers are hacking in to it to and are stealing our info and crooks so i say google is breaking the law they are not law officials at all and have not want to congress to do this stuff microfsoft and google and all of the rest are breaking the law and will be sued for it and congress needs to stop them now
    ttx19
  • RE: How Google-and everyone else-gets Wi-Fi location data

    Location data is both good & bad, in my opinion.

    I want everyone to share location data while I am traveling. I want to know the speed everyone is traveling on the Interstate because that informs me before I attempt it myself if road conditions are deteriorating (blizzard conditions).

    But when the government has only to make a simple request to a provider (ISP, Google, phone company, whomever) to get my location & emails & call logs & whatever, then we have a huge privacy problem. Yes, I have nothing to hide, but power corrupts and some people will use that info for corrupt purposes.

    It is OK with me for Google and everyone to anonomously use that data. But big brother must prevented from getting access (in real time or after the fact) without a court order.
    slowgeezer