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Google ends all Street View Wi-Fi data collection

'Who needs the cars? We'll use handsets'

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Google has "no plans" to resume the collection of WiFi network data via its world-roving Street View cars, according to a report by Canada's privacy commissioner reprimanding the web giant for collecting WiFi payload data as well as network info.

"Google still intends to offer location-based services, but does not intend to resume collection of WiFi data through its Street View cars," the report said. "Collection is discontinued and Google has no plans to resume it."

Instead, the company will collect WiFi network data via handsets. "Google intends to rely on its users’ handsets to collect the information on the location of WiFi networks that it needs for its location-based services database," the report continues. "The improvements in smartphone technology in the past few years have allowed Google to obtain the data it needs for this purpose from the handsets themselves."

In mid-May, Google revealed that its Street View cars had been collecting data sent over user WiFi networks, contradicting previous statement by the company. Just a few weeks earlier, in response to a complaint from the German privacy authority, a Google blog post said that in scanning open Wi-Fi networks, its cars were collecting only the SSIDs that identify the networks and MAC addresses that identify particular network hardware, including routers.

In revealing that payload data was collected, Google also said that it had "grounded" its Street View cars, and when it did put them back on the sky road, they did not collect any WiFi network data. Privacy authorities across the globe launched investigations of Google's past WiFi data collection, and some concluded that the company had violated local laws, including Canada privacy commissioner Jennifer Stoddart.

Stoddart's report also says that Google's collection of payload data was the result of "careless error," and it merely instructs Google to revise its internal privacy procedures. Spain's privacy authority has filed a lawsuit against the company, claiming that fragments of user WiFi data were transferred to the US.

Google always contended that it "mistakenly" collected WiFi payload data, but its collection of SSIDs and MAC addresses was no accident. The company uses this information in services that rely on location data, including its search engine and Google Maps.

"The data which we collect is used to improve Google’s location based services, as well as services provided by the Google Geo Location API," the company said in its April blog post discussing the practice.

With Google Maps for Mobile, for instance, users can determine their approximate location using not only nearby cell towers but WiFi networks as well. And though Google didn't mention this specifically in the blog post, it aims to use location data for ad targeting.

Yes, the company can use GPS for such tasks, but this isn't always the best option – just as it can't always rely on cell towers. Google's blog said: "GPS can be much slower or not available (e.g. when there is no view of the sky; when blocked by tall buildings). Plus many devices don’t have GPS enabled. GPS is also expensive in terms of battery consumption, so another reason to use WiFi location versus GPS is to conserve energy."

Google already collects WiFi network data via the handsets themselves. These efforts have sparked a lawsuit from Skyhook Wireless, the company that pioneered the collection of such location data. Skyhook accuses Google of using Android and various apps, including Google Maps, to force manufacturers into using Mountain View's location technology rather than Skyhook's.

According to the suit, Google Android boss Andy Rubin told Motorola co-chief executive Sanjay Jha that if the handset manufacturer didn't drop Skyhook from its phones, Google would remove official Android support from the devices.

The suit also claims that Google resorted to such tactics after realizing that its location services were inferior to offerings from the likes of Skyhook. "But once Google realized its positioning technology was not competitive, it chose other means to undermine Skyhook and damage and attempt to destroy its position in the marketplace for location positioning technology," the suit reads.

As Search Engine Land points out, if Google was that motivated to push its location services onto manufacturers in the past, its even more motivated now. ®

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

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