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Use A Mobile Device? Google Street View May Know Where It Is

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Google Street View car

Google Street View car

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UPDATED: See below.

If you use a mobile device -- a laptop, a cell phone -- you know how great it can be to stay connected on the go. But as we've seen with the Apple iPhone and even with RSS feeds on the Nissan Leaf, mobility often comes with its share of privacy headaches. The latest issue? Google Street View, which in addition to its previous privacy transgressions, may have also logged the location of your mobile device and shared it with the world. Oops.

The basics

It's impossible to deny: many of us are hooked on mobile services, and our addiction is only getting worse. Problem is, for mobile to work properly, we have to make ourselves a little vulnerable. After all, how can we check in on Foursquare if the app can't find us on a map? How is Google Maps going to get us to grandma's house if we don't tell Google where we are in the first place?

For these services to improve, Google in particular logs the location of certain devices. For example, you might recall that Google Street View got the smackdown in countries around the globe when those countries learned that Google's roving cars were collecting the locations of both cell towers and wifi hotspots.

Google's collection of those hotspot sites seems to have been mostly innocent -- the idea being that including those hotspots would give Google more accuracy in pinpointing locations. So, for example, if you were wandering down a city street, and your phone could "see" two cell towers, that would give Google a fairly good idea where you were. But if you could also see a particular wifi network, that would allow Google to triangulate your position with much better accuracy.

Today's problem

Google Street View stopped using its cars to scan for wifi networks because of privacy concerns. (Those were very legit concerns, since Street View collected not only the location of those networks, but also pulled data -- like private emails -- off of them.) But prior to Google pulling the plug, it appears that Street View Cars logged not only the location of access points, and not only private information, but also the MAC addresses of any devices connected to those networks.

MAC addresses are permanent identifiers attached to hardware. If someone has access to the MAC address of another person's phone, laptop, or other device, she can use that data to pinpoint recent locations of that device using a Google database -- or rather, could've done so, since Google seems to have addressed the problem.

However, there's reason to believe that Google may still have MAC addresses floating around in their databases. If so, clever computer types could be able to track down those devices using an API or two.

More troubling? While Google may have put the brakes on having Street View Cars collect wifi network data, it appears that Google still collects wifi data through its international network of Android phones (which is creepy in a Skynet way). The level of detail collected and transmitted by those phones is far more limited than when it was being done via Street View, but it's still there.

Bottom line: We're not a heavy tech blog, so we'll leave the nitty-gritty of this story to others, but for now, just know that mobile services are far from perfect. In your daily lives, that means that until we develop the technology to allow freedom and privacy to co-exist on our mobile devices, be wary.

Something to consider over these last few weeks of summer vacation...

UPDATE: Initial reports indicated that Skyhook Wireless also stored and shared MAC addresses, but a Skyhook rep has commented below to say that that's not the case. In the interest of fairness, we've taken the reference to Skyhook out of our article.

[Much more detail at CNET.com]

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Comments (2)
  1. We never collect the IDs (MAC addresses) of end user devices unless the owner has used it as an actual access point. We do not collect data the way Google does and have shared all our technical details with the Federal government.

    Ted Morgan
    CEO
    Skyhook, Inc.
     
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    Bad stuff?

     
  2. Thanks for the clarification, Ted. I've updated the article.
     
    Post Reply
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    Bad stuff?

 

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