How would you feel if someone was sitting outside your house and tracking details of your Wi-Fi IP address and your usage and recording the details, for no plausible reason? Would you consider it a breach of your privacy or an accepted risk of using wireless technology in the home?
If itâ€™s the former then you will be in sync with privacy organizations in Australia who were perturbed to discover that Google was doing just this whilst undertaking its already controversial Street View project. Along with taking photos of houses and street features, it has equipped vehicles with Wi-Fi receivers that also scan private network signals as they drive past.
The Street View photos taken are overlayed onto Google Maps and, presumably, IP addresses can also be linked to the homes in this latest exercise, but why? Presumably, if you look up Google Maps from your home network it could magically show your exact location. Big deal!
But what about all the information that can be gleaned from devices connected to your home Wi-Fi? Each one has a MAC address identifying it to anyone that may be bothered. Imagine being able to sell this information to marketing companies. If we take this to the extreme you could receive a phone call suggesting that its time your old Windows PC could be replaced with the latest mode, at a special price of course. Worse still, you might just get a push ad during a Google search offering a special deal on ink supplies for your particular printer because itâ€™s running low!
There is no way Google would bother collecting this data if it did not have a purpose for it or see a monetary return in doing so. Electronic Frontiers Australia and the Australian Privacy Foundation are jointly drafting a letter that will be sent to Google asking to â€˜please explain.’ According to a report in German newspaper Der Spiegel, the German government was surprised last month to discover that Wi-Fi data was being collected alongside Street View photographs. Apparently, Germany’s Data Protection Commissioner Peter Schaar was “horrified” when told.
Google has taken some heat lately about its commitment to privacy after officials from 10 governments, including New Zealand, Canada and France – wrote a letter to chief executive Eric Schmidt to express their concern over data collection for Street View and the botched rollout of its Buzz social network, which made the contact lists of Gmail users public to other subscribers.
Although the company argues the information being collected is public and therefore not in breach of any laws, it conceded last week that it could have been better publicised. This is not the first time Google has been questioned over its privacy policies. It looks like Google canâ€™t take a trick these days but with privacy concerns growing in many quarters you can only wonder why it is not being more transparent. Not being so will only make governments and the public, in general, more cautious in dealings with the search and information giant.
PS – And the latest news – Google has said it will no longer collect Wi-Fi network information for its Street View mapping service after “mistakenly” gathering personal wireless data.
Although Google has stated previously it did not collect any personal data, “it’s now clear that we have been mistakenly collecting samples of payload data from open (ie non-password-protected) Wi-Fi networks,” Alan Eustace, a Google senior vice president for engineering and research, said in a blog post.