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Street View under fire for Wi-Fi hotspot snooping

street view shot

By Hani Megerisi

Posted on 23 Apr 2010 at 11:15

Google’s Street View car has come under fire collecting data on private Wi-Fi networks.

As well as taking photographs for Google Map, the Street View car is also collecting users’ unique MAC (Media Access Control) addresses. This information could be potentially used by services such as Twitter so that it can identify where a tweet has come from.

Wi-Fi location data is used by thousands of applications on smartphones, by services like Twitter and browsers such as Firefox as one of the ways in which location can be determined and used to deliver location-relevant services

The practice was discovered in Germany by the country’s Federal Data Protection Commissioner Peter Schaar, who said he was “horrified” Google was doing this “without the knowledge of third parties”.

He also called on Google to stop collecting Wi-Fi data and to delete “previously unlawfully collected personal data”, according to German news service ARD.

A spokesperson for Google said this practice was widely used by many companies for location-based services, includinh Skyhook, which has been mapping Wi-Fi hotspot data and WLAN networks since 2003.

"Today, geolocation services are an increasingly popular part of the web,” Google said in a statement. “Wi-Fi location data is used by thousands of applications on smartphones, by services like Twitter and browsers such as Firefox as one of the ways in which location can be determined and used to deliver location-relevant services (such as bus times, local restaurants, social network posts etc).

“Wi-Fi location information is by its very nature publicly broadcast and collecting it for geolocation purposes is not new or unique to Google. Such information has been collected by companies for years, and many other internet companies are using exactly the same information collected by different providers."

Germany has previously attacked Google over its Street View car and for the level of data it collects through users’ accounts. The car has been mapping Germany for the past few years, but Street View is still unavailable in the country. Google says it hopes to release the service in Germany later this year.

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User comments

If Google don't see this as a breach of privacy then....

Why didn't they inform anyone that they were doing this !!!

By 00lissauers on 23 Apr 2010

Curse of the MAC

I guess we will just have to change our MAC addresses at regular intervals then I suppose.

By QbixQbix on 23 Apr 2010

And people worry about ID cards...! This is a far worse abuse of privacy. Google should be really taken to task over this scandalous revelation.

By SwissMac on 23 Apr 2010

Are you serious?

I can only assume that the commenters above (1 and 3 specifically) are being hilariously sarcastic.

Is everyone in Germany as equally outraged whenever anyone happens to note down their house number as displayed on their front doors?

By john_robnob on 23 Apr 2010

half of us have been using it without even noticing

Those of us with smartphones using Google maps can now understand how, without gps data, they can use location based information.
If this is all the info is being used for then no harm is done to the networks but great benefit is derived by smartphone users.
I think it's a brilliant idea which we would all have applauded if it had been announced prior to streetview's introduction.

By roadshowuk on 23 Apr 2010

My iPod touch has no gps etc but does a great job working out where it is using wifi alone. This data is clearly already collected without our knowledge......works great ;-)

By wigsta1 on 23 Apr 2010

How does it work?

Am I missing something? A Twitter client might be able to access a MAC address, but I don't think a browser standardly can - thuogh I've seen some saying they can get a MAC address from IE using ActiveX. So how does knowing a MAC address help?

By IT4SmallBiz on 24 Apr 2010

Re: How does it work?

MAC addresses are used to identify the actual hardware of a network adapter (e.g. transmitter/receiver of a wireless router). Most people and organizations tend not to change out or move their network hardware all that often.

So if you're within the signal range enables you to detect the MAC address of a wireless device with a known physical location, you can figure a decent approximation of your location.

By BalSeraph on 24 Apr 2010

@ john_robnob

I purposefully choose not to use those services (or others) for many reasons, but one of the main ones is I just don't like the way location-based services grab onto data which could be used for various illegal means. I have my wifi SSID hidden for similar reasons, but obviously with packet sniffer programs, you can find this out - I suspect the Google Street View car uses such as these.

I choose not to broadcast extra information, but Google takes that choice away from you - no matter what, they *are* going to get it and they *are* going to shove it into a database over which you have no control. I honestly wonder if they would respond to DPA requests to release and remove data if demanded. I somehow doubt it.

Also, your analogy of noting down door-numbers is a flawed one; firstly, just noting down the numbers themselves is completely different to whacking them into a massive, online-accessible, searchable, cross-referenced database; secondly, just spoofing a door number won't get you much, but spoofing a MAC address can let you do an awful lot of nefarious things and blame it on someone else, especially if you also have their IP address and physical real-world address - something that Google makes a whole lot easier.

Google seems intent on setting itself up as a pirate's or cyber-criminal's dream repository of information, leaving everyone to just trust that it's vigilant enough to protect against all attacks and that one of its employees is *never* going to sell on the data it is collecting.

That's not something I'm willing to believe will never happen.

Still, obviously according to Eric Schmidt, the fact I don't want people knowing my SSID or other information proves I have something to hide, so I'd obviously deserve something happening to me, anyway, right?

By bioreit on 25 Apr 2010

"Also, your analogy of noting down door-numbers is a flawed one; firstly, just noting down the numbers themselves is completely different to whacking them into a massive, online-accessible, searchable, cross-referenced database; ..."

In the UK it's called the Post Office Address File ...

By Aasta on 26 Apr 2010

@BalSeraph

Thanks - that makes some sense. But perhaps I'm still missing something. The network stack in wigsta1's iPod touch knows the MAC address of the wifi base station it's just hooked up to (or detected), but are we saying that that info is available to other apps on the device? And is this common among wifi enabled phones etc?
If I take my laptop down the road, I (as the user) can see (or dig out) the MAC address of a base station in range; but my browser won't transmit that MAC address - so how does Google (whose services are pretty much all web based) get hold of it?

By IT4SmallBiz on 26 Apr 2010

Life360

I tested an app: Life360 on my Android tablet connected wifi to my router and it lists my exact location (number and street). I did more tests, connected to an open wifi across the street and the app listed that street address. Connected wifi at the Starbucks, the application doesn't find the
local address all the time. I still try to understand how do they pin-point your IP to the local address. To complicate things even more: Google steet view has been done two years ago
as I didn't have the wifi router and neither of the Starbucks had any wifi equipment.

By paul_yy on 12 Sep 2010

Life360

I tested an app: Life360 on my Android tablet connected wifi to my router and it lists my exact location (number and street). I did more tests, connected to an open wifi across the street and the app listed that street address. Connected wifi at the Starbucks, the application doesn't find the
local address all the time. I still try to understand how do they pin-point your IP to the local address. To complicate things even more: Google steet view has been done two years ago
as I didn't have the wifi router and neither of the Starbucks had any wifi equipment.

By paul_yy on 12 Sep 2010

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