Google Street View has come under fire again, this time for collecting wireless router information and some packets of data whilst wandering the globe and collecting pictures of our streets. It looks like the German authorities, in particular, may come down hard of Google though I’m at odds about the ‘calibre’ of the privacy violation – router information is fair game as far as I’m concerned, though data packets are a little dicier. But before I dig into that, let me outline what’s actually gone on.
Last Friday, Google announced that they had been inadvertently collecting some data packets sent via unencrypted wireless access points for the past three years. This admission came after the Street View program (again) came under criticism from German data protection authorities following Google’s (original, and earlier) admission that they had only been collecting information about wireless routers as they drove their cars around towns. Specifically, the original admission saw Google reveal they had collected the SSID and MAC addresses of routers. In layman’s terms, the SSID is the name of the wireless network that is usually given to the device during configuration processes following the installation of the device (e.g. Apartment 312, Pablo14, or any of the other names that are shown when you scan for wireless networks from your computer). The MAC address a unique number that is associated with each piece of Internet networking equipment; your wireless card in your computer, your LAN card, your router, and your iPhone all have unique numbers. After collecting both the SSID and MAC address of a wireless router the company identified the physical location of the device using a GPS system.
Google collects information about wireless networks and (almost more importantly) their physical location to provide a wifi-based geolocation system. Once they know where wireless routers are, and plot them on a map, you don’t need GPS to plan and trace a route through a city because a wireless card and low-powered computer will suffice. There are claims that this constitutes a privacy infringement, insofar as the correlation of SSID, MAC address, and physical location of the router constitute personal information. I’m not sure that I agree with this, as the Google service stands now.