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I'm lost without Google Wi-Fi snoop

Don't touch that router

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

Andrew's Mailbag Is it the sudden outbreak of sunshine? Is it write something silly to Andrew week?

A reader we shall call John sends me this:

I just tried the new me.com Find my iPhone app. I live in a rural setting and own a 3GS which had WiFi turned off (to save the battery up the wirelessless pub last night). The app was out by approximately 3km when using GPS and the (very distant) telephone mast, and the confidence range (the big blue circle) was hopelessly optimistic.

But the app also offered to find my wifi-only iPad, which surprised me. I checked that and it was accurate to within 10 metres.

This seems to show that Google's mapping of the wifi world is crucially important and we stand to lose a lot if it's lost in the brouhaha about nicking payload as well as the publicly broadcast MAC address. Of course they shouldn't have hoovered up that stuff, but I haven't seen a convincing account of the practical use to which Google could have put it even if they wanted to be really evil...

The other thing that occurred to me was that my upgrading my Airport machine would make a small black hole in Google's map of the world...

One immediate wrinkle in John's argument occurs to me. In urban areas the cellular network already locates you to within a few hundred yards rural areas, so the Wi-Fi snoop can't be justified there. But in the countryside, there's a tiny Wi-Fi footprint amidst vast spaces where there's no signal at all*, so it's still useless as a location aid. Unless you happen to be within range, such as… at home.

So the only use case I see is if you happen to black out, and can't remember where you are, then you can just turn on your iPad and thanks to Google, it'll be able to tell you.

That's why you need Google's Wi-Fi snoop. It's saving us from ourselves.

Comments welcome. ®

*Yes, I know that with a directional antenna, you can snoop all the WiFi you want for miles around - but here I'm talking about regular equipment (laptops, phones).

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