Is Google Infringing on Your Location Privacy?

Google has long been scrutinized for its practice of using its Street View cars to collect the locations of millions of laptops, cell phones and various Wi-Fi devices from around the world during its collection of street view data for it popular Google maps service that has long since raised substantial privacy concerns.

In a debate that borders on the contentiousness of the Net Neutrality debate, is the concern of whether Google (and other companies) should be allowed to collect and distribute this data. The Google View Cars mandate was to collect the locations of various Wi-Fi hotspots and access points; but they also recorded the not only the street addresses, but the IP addresses and unique identifiers (MAC addresses) of devices that were connected to the wireless networks. Google then made the data publicly available through Google.com up until just a few weeks ago.

Recently French authorities from the Commission Nationale de l’Informatique et des Libertés (CNIL) contacted CNET and stated that their investigation confirmed that the Street View Cars collected MAC addresses and issued a fine to Google for 100,000 euros (approximately $140, 000).

Concerns over Goggles Street View and location privacy infringements from other companies are certainly not new. Apple recently came under attack for its practice of collecting log files of location data obtained from iPhones. Under substantial pressure, Apple released a patch to correct the "problem."

In the wake of the growing controversy, a number of disclosure statements from other company’s location privacy practices, concerns expressed from congressmen, two US Senate hearings and an increasing number of class action lawsuits have brought the location privacy debate to fervor.

Security consultant, Ashkan Soltani, was the first to report that Google made MAC addresses publicly available through a Web interface. Google then discontinued the practice a week later.

In a previous inquiry earlier this year from CNET, concerns were raised over Google’s location privacy practices, 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. When asked last month, Google stated only that "we collect the publicly broadcast MAC addresses of Wi-Fi access points…" which addressed only current and not past practices.

The U.S., the Federal Trade Commission concluded its investigation of Google Street View’s accidentally-broad data collection last October without levying a fine.

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