Tydda Jon - Slough
jon.tydda at lonza.com
Tue May 11 03:44:32 CDT 2010
http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn18844-innovation-the-wifi-database-that-shamed-google.html By now, most of us in the US, the UK and Australia, plus many elsewhere in Europe, have got used to the fact that images of almost every house on every street are available online for all to see via the Street View facility in Google Maps. But last week many were shocked to learn that while the advertising giant's camera-equipped cars were zipping past our front doors, they were not just collecting panoramic photos. Wi-Fi antennas on the cars were hunting down wireless computer networks, and equipment inside was recording the networks' names, locations and the unique MAC address of the routers supporting them. The revelation has, not for the first time, prompted a wave of accusations that Google doesn't care about privacy anywhere near enough. Map maker Google says it has collected the data in order to improve the accuracy with which smartphones can pinpoint their location on Google Maps, especially in city centres where GPS may be unreliable. Cellphone mapping apps can improve matters by drawing on knowledge of which cellphone tower the phone is in contact with, but Google realised that even greater accuracy is possible if the phone can note details of nearby wireless routers. The server supplying Google Maps to the phone can then calculate a precise position. Millions of smartphone users worldwide have already benefited from Google's database, which has been live in the US since late 2007. Not so strange Google is not alone in gathering Wi-Fi data for location purposes. Skyhook Wireless of Boston uses Wi-Fi-scanning cars to provide a similar service, which is used by the default mapping app on some Motorola phones. Although Google has not made any particular effort to keep its data-gathering activities secret, neither has it declared what it has been doing. It was not until last week that Germany's Federal Commissioner for Data Protection, Peter Schaar, discovered that Street View cars operating in Germany were harvesting Wi-Fi data. He says he had not been made aware of this when he granted Google permission to take photographs for Street View. In the UK, the Information Commissioner's Office was similarly surprised. Though the commissioner had met Google before Street View cars began patrolling the UK, "at no point did Google make us aware that it would be scanning Wi-Fi too", says ICO spokesman Nick Day. The ICO says it is seeking more information from Google, while Schaar is demanding that the firm delete any Wi-Fi data collected "unlawfully". Open up Google's global privacy counsel, Peter Fleischer, says the data protection authorities were not informed of the Wi-Fi trawl because "this is all publicly broadcast information which is accessible to anyone with a Wi-Fi enabled device". No law prohibits its collection, he says. And unlike Street View images, the Wi-Fi data will remain at the data centre providing the mapping service, and will never to be published online, Fleischer says. The data commissioners have not spelled out the risks of a leak from the Wi-Fi database, and are unlikely to press for laws against Wi-Fi data collection any time soon. But the outcry over Google's now not-so-secret Wi-Fi database leads to a clear conclusion, says Simon Davies, head of pressure group Privacy International. "Keeping the data collection secret was a bad decision from a community relations perspective," he says. Fleischer seems to agree. "It's clear with hindsight that greater transparency would have been better," he says. When pushing technical boundaries with other people's data, a little openness goes a long way. Jon ________________________________ This communication and its attachments, if any, may contain confidential and privileged information the use of which by other persons or entities than the intended recipient is prohibited. If you receive this transmission in error, please contact the sender immediately and delete the material from your system.
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