Google Cars grabbed Locations of Phones, PCs

by
CNETNews
July 26, 2011

Google’s Street View cars collected the locations of millions of laptops, cell phones, and other Wi-Fi devices around the world, a practice that raises novel privacy concerns, CNET has confirmed.

The cars were supposed to collect the locations of Wi-Fi access points. But Google also recorded the street addresses and unique identifiers of computers and other devices using those wireless networks and then made the data publicly available through Google.com until a few weeks ago.

The French data protection authority, known as the Commission Nationale de l’Informatique et des Libertés (CNIL) recently contacted CNET and said its investigation confirmed that Street View cars collected these unique hardware IDs. In March, CNIL’s probe resulted in a fine of 100,000 euros, about $143,000.

The confirmation comes as concerns about location privacy appear to be growing. Apple came under fire in April for recording logs of approximate location data on iPhones, and eventually released a fix. That controversy sparked a series of disclosures about other companies’ location privacy practices, questions and complaints from congressmen, a pair of U.S. Senate hearings, and the now-inevitable lawsuits seeking class action status.

A previous CNET article, published June 15 and triggered by the research of security consultant Ashkan Soltani, was the first to report that Google made these unique hardware IDs–called MAC addresses–publicly available through a Web interface. Google curbed the practice about a week later.

But it was unclear at the time whether Google’s location database included the hardware IDs of only access points and wireless routers or client devices, such as computers and mobile phones, as well.

Anecdotal evidence suggested they had been swept up. Alissa Cooper, chief computer scientist at the Center for Democracy and Technology and co-chair of an Internet Engineering Task Force on geolocation, said her 2009 home address was listed in Google’s location database. Nick Doty, a lecturer at the University of California at Berkeley who co-teaches the Technology and Policy Lab, found that Google listed his former home in the Capitol Hill neighborhood in Seattle.

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244,000 Germans say ‘no’ to Google’s Street View

AP

Internet giant Google says more than 244,000 Germans have asked that their homes be made unrecognizable in its Street View program, scheduled to launch in Germany next month.

Google estimated in a statement released Thursday that the requests amount to about 3 percent of the total number of households in Germany’s 20 largest cities, images of which are to go online as part of the company’s mapping program.

“The high number of objections to Google Street View shows that citizens want to decide which data about themselves is published on the Internet,” said Peter Schaar, the head of Germany’s data protection watchdog.

German authorities had demanded that Google allow citizens to request the homes not be pictured in Street View, insisting that posting images of private residences on the Internet violated individual privacy.

Street View is currently available in 23 countries. Germany is the only one where citizens could request their homes be removed before the program went online. But the service has also been disputed in South Korea and elsewhere amid fears that people — filmed without their consent — could be seen on the footage doing things they didn’t want to be seen doing or in places where they didn’t want to be seen.

The California-based company lost the trust of many in Europe this spring when it had to acknowledge that the technology used by its Street View cars had also vacuumed up fragments of people’s online activities broadcast over public Wi-Fi networks for the past four years.

Authorities in Spain, meanwhile, said Thursday that Google faces two probes there over Street View, after the country’s data protection agency said it had found evidence that the company may have committed five offenses by capturing and storing data from users connected to Wi-Fi networks while it collected material for its mapping feature, and transferred this data to the United States.

If found guilty, the company could be fined up to euro2.4 million ($3.33 million).

The body said, however, the probe would be suspended temporarily until a Madrid court rules on another similar complaint made against Google in June by a private Spanish Internet watchdog and technology consultancy group called APEDANICA.

No one from Google in Spain was available for comment on the two cases.

In Germany, Google warned that while it was taking care to make sure that all requests are honored, “it cannot be guaranteed that every application that we have received can be fully processed. For example in cases where the address given is not clear.”

Google will also provide a tool for anyone requesting to have images captured in Street View to be made unrecognizable. The tool will be made available when the service goes online.