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Uh, oh. Now Google's cataloging MAC addresses.

Is this evil? Google's roving spy cars are also cataloging WiFi network information, including MAC addresses and available SSIDs.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

So here's the scenario. Google's Street View vehicles are traveling all over the world, sucking as much information into Google's ginormous databases as they can find. Some of that information shows up in the publicly-available Street View application and some, apparently doesn't.

According to an article in the German SPIEGEL ONLINE (and oh-so-helpfully -- and ironically -- translated by Google Translate), Google's roving spy cars are also cataloging WiFi network information, including MAC addresses and available SSIDs. (Link to original article in German)

Also read: Real-life James Bonds annoyed at Google for showing secret base on Street View

Some German officials are very much not of the happy camp. SPIEGEL quotes German Federal Data Protection Commissioner Peter Schaar as saying he's "horrified been used for what purposes these trips without the knowledge of third parties."

Again, this is what Google Translate thinks he's saying. What Peter Schaar actually said was more like, "...entsetzt, zu welchen Zwecken diese Fahrten ohne Wissen Dritter genutzt worden sind."

Heh heh. Peter said Fahrten.

Settle down, Beavis. If you speak German, feel free to TalkBack and either verify or correct the translation.

Next: In Google's defense »

Google, according to SPIEGEL, claims that acquiring public WiFi data is nothing new or strange (I'll save you the translation from English to German, and back to English). The basic idea is that there have been public WiFi hotspot directories for years, and Google's act of cataloging those it finds is nothing new or sinister.

True dat.

But what about cataloging MAC addresses? If not evil, isn't that at least unethical?

One of the ways to secure a wireless network is by MAC address filtering, where you deny access to the network to any device whose MAC address you haven't approved. If it's possible to easily look up MAC addresses via Google, it'd be easy for war-drivers to spoof those addresses and possibly gain access to wireless networks.

Yeah, but.

While Google's hunger for all available data can be scary at times, there's nothing new about gathering available wireless information. Any fairly competent IT administrator knows how to use a network protocol analyzer and if a network is configured to leak any information into the public airwaves, that's ultimately a problem of poor network administration and not Google's greed for digital data.

Read also: Ten countries fire warning shot at Google

I do believe it would be unwise for Google to publish MAC addresses on Street View. It doesn't really add any value and it would put network devices at more risk (especially if a MAC address can be ascertained by just looking at a Google map anywhere in the world, rather than having to be within wireless access distance, which is usually just down the street).

But while I recommend Google exercise caution in exposing this data publicly (and so far, there's been no indication they are), it's certainly within their right to do so -- unless they're violating any laws that preclude access to networks without permission.

There have been a number of cases where WiFi users tapped into unsecured networks to go online and were prosecuted. Google could be setting itself up for all sorts of legal complications, depending on which jurisdiction it's in while driving around and being a little data piggy.

Bottom line: worrisome, not evil.

What do you think? Is Google being evil here? Who else do you think is evil? TalkBack below.

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