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Google starts hiding Wi-Fi device locations after exposť

updated 02:45 pm EDT, Mon June 27, 2011

Google map data goes Apple, Microsoft route

Google is quietly changing a controversial policy towards showing Wi-Fi device locations, a source said Monday. The company is reportedly backing off of an approach that would let anyone who knows a device's MAC (Media Access Control) address find out where it had been to within 100 to 200 feet. What the changes will be haven't been outlined to CNET but, in a 3,000-device test, may have involved cutting off location reporting on the server side.

The changes may be mostly to remove script support but not the web.

Google officially claims the Wi-Fi devices are limited to hotspots, but it acknowledged that Android, iPhones, and other devices acting as Wi-Fi hotspots might get caught and only discarded if they move too often. A spokesperson also wouldn't commit to saying for certain that regular phones wouldn't get caught in the mix.

Any backing off may be a reflection both of having been uncovered as well as of a push to more closely emulate the more privacy-bound models of Apple and Microsoft. Apple has ended up collecting Wi-Fi data but has never sent it directly to its servers or made the information public. Microsoft also doesn't publish Windows Phone locations in an externally accessible format.

The Google format isn't immediately dangerous as it depends on already knowing hardware ID but, until the recent changes, could be used to scrape information at a public access point and potentially use it to track or identify an individual. Such access may have helped spur on new Senate proposals that could require more explicit consent for getting mobile location data.

By Electronista Staff


  1. Inkling

    Senior User

    Joined: Jul 2006


    One reason

    There's a serious problem with allowing someone to go from a WiFi router's MAC address to its location.

    Imagine a woman having a problem with a stalker or nasty ex-boy friend. She moves to an address he doesn't know, but isn't tech-saavy enough to know that that her WiFi will soon be linked to her location thanks to Google's roving cars. He's more tech-saavy and uses that MAC to locate her. Bad, bad, bad.

    Perhaps the WiFi protocol needs to have a don't track flag much like websites can exclude themselves from Google's search engine. It wouldn't make them invisible, but it would make them much harder to find.

  1. tfmeehan

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: Mar 2009



    Is this part of Google's open policy? What dumb a** at Google thought that was a good idea? I'm starting to think they were misquoted on that "evil" statement...probably meant the opposite.

  1. sycophantic

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: Jun 2011


    Don't use wifi then

    No one is forcing you to have or use wifi. The device transmits the MAC and SSID unencrypted and uses unlicensed spectrum. So there really is no protection under the Telecommunications Act of 1934. The person who receives the radio communication can do what they like with the information. If you don't want your info out there, don't use wireless!

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