Google Cars grabbed Locations of Phones, PCs

by Declan McCullagh
CNETNews
July 26, 2011

Google’s Street View cars collected the locations of millions of laptops, cell phones, and other Wi-Fi devices around the world, a practice that raises novel privacy concerns, CNET has confirmed.

The cars were supposed to collect the locations of Wi-Fi access points. But Google also recorded the street addresses and unique identifiers of computers and other devices using those wireless networks and then made the data publicly available through Google.com until a few weeks ago.

The French data protection authority, known as the Commission Nationale de l’Informatique et des Libertés (CNIL) recently contacted CNET and said its investigation confirmed that Street View cars collected these unique hardware IDs. In March, CNIL’s probe resulted in a fine of 100,000 euros, about $143,000.

The confirmation comes as concerns about location privacy appear to be growing. Apple came under fire in April for recording logs of approximate location data on iPhones, and eventually released a fix. That controversy sparked a series of disclosures about other companies’ location privacy practices, questions and complaints from congressmen, a pair of U.S. Senate hearings, and the now-inevitable lawsuits seeking class action status.

A previous CNET article, published June 15 and triggered by the research of security consultant Ashkan Soltani, was the first to report that Google made these unique hardware IDs–called MAC addresses–publicly available through a Web interface. Google curbed the practice about a week later.

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.

Anecdotal evidence suggested they had been swept up. Alissa Cooper, chief computer scientist at the Center for Democracy and Technology and co-chair of an Internet Engineering Task Force on geolocation, said her 2009 home address was listed in Google’s location database. Nick Doty, a lecturer at the University of California at Berkeley who co-teaches the Technology and Policy Lab, found that Google listed his former home in the Capitol Hill neighborhood in Seattle.

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