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Gathering your WiFi data – Google’s business plan

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Fri, Apr 30, 2010 at 3:21 pm

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Gathering your WiFi data – Google’s business plan

Government data protection authorities in Germany and the UK are questioning the collection of information on individual WiFI networks by Google’s Street View cars traversing their local streets.

Google collects the data on locations of W.L.A.N.’s, or wireless local area networks and their identification addresses as part of a project, separate from Street View, that, according to the New York Times,  is “designed to promote services like location-based advertising for mobile phones.”  The information is collected by radio receivers installed in the  vehicles taking photographs for Google’s Street view. The Times reported:

Kay Overbeck, a Google spokesman in Hamburg, said W.L.A.N. data were in the public domain in Germany. “What we are doing is totally legal and is being done by other companies around the world and in Germany,” he said.

This week Google wrote a letter to several European data protection authorities describing their project and the technology after objections were raised. In order to improve their own “location based services”  and  “operators and users of other products and services through the free publicly available Geolocations API,” Google is collecting location indicators that help locate a user’s device (like a smartphone).  “To be able to use these location indicators, Google has collected information to help create a database of known cell tower and WiFi access points.”

German and UK authorities are questioning the collection and use of the data. According to German broadcaster ARD:

Germany’s Federal Commissioner for Data Protection Peter Schaar says he’s “horrified” by the discovery…”I am appalled… I call upon Google to delete previously unlawfully collected personal data on the wireless network immediately and stop the rides for Street View.”

A posting on Google’s European Public Policy Blog lays out Google’s arguments – like –“we cannot identify an individual from the location data Google collects via its Street View cars” and “We do not believe it is illegal” and their excuse – We’re not the only one!

Companies like Skyhook have been collecting this data cross Europe for longer than Google, as well as organizations like the German Fraunhofer Institute.”

Of course, the collection of WiFi data by those Street View cars is not new, it’s been going on in the U.S., too. New Scientist describes it as The WiFi database that shamed Google.

Once again Google is demonstrating its arrogant computer engineer’s approach as it sucks up more and more information for its gargantuan database just to sell even more ads: We’re the smartest and we know what’s best. Don’t ask permission, you can always ask forgiveness if necessary … Ka-ching, ka-ching.

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This post was written by:

Margot Williams

- who has written 49 posts on Inside Google.

Margot Williams has more than two decades of experience in roles as investigative researcher, research editor, database editor, technology trainer and library director at The New York Times, The Washington Post, Gannett newspapers and Time Warner. She was lead researcher on two Pulitzer Prize-winning teams at The Washington Post for reporting on terrorism in 2002 and for an investigation of the use of deadly force by the District of Columbia police in 1999. Margot is the co-author of “Great Scouts! CyberGuides for Subject Searching on the Web” (Cyberage Books, 1999) and contributed to the “Networkings” column in The Washington Post for five years.

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