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Skyhook routes around Google to MapQuest

Location pioneer finds Android way

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

Skyhook – the location services outfit that was booted from both Google's Android mobile OS and Apple's iOS – continues to work its way back onto phones through third-party applications.

On Tuesday, the Boston-based company announced that MapQuest's free Android application has embedded the core Skyhook location service engine, which uses Wi-Fi signals as well as GPS to pinpoint a device's location. This allows the application to provide turn-by-turn navigation and other services even when reliable GPS data is not available.

A pioneer in the location services business, Skyhook has built a massive location database of Wi-Fi networks and cell towers across the US and other parts of the world. To determine your location, the company's mobile service compares this database to the Wi-Fi networks it identifies in the vicinity of your phone.

Skyhook shipped with the original iPhone, and it was due to be included with Android as well, but both Google and Apple chose to replace the service with their own location systems. In recent days, the tech giants have endured a firestorm of criticism over the way these new systems operate.

Both Apple and Google are using phones to build a database similar to Skyhook, and like Skyhook, both download a portion of their database to the phone itself in attempting to determine the user's location. In each case, this downloaded data is easily readable on the phone itself, and at least in Apple's case, this data has been used by law enforcement to determine where people have been.

Google also complicates matters by grabbing a unique ID for each Android phone as it collects Wi-Fi and cell tower data. This would allow Google to reconstruct where the user has been, and the data could potentially be acquired through a subpoena or national security letter.

Skyhook does not capture a phone ID, and it encrypts the location data it downloads to phones.

Last year, Skyhook sued Google, claiming that Mountain View strong-armed its Android partners into dropping Skyhook in favor of Google location services. According to the suit, Andy Rubin – who oversees Google's Android project – told Motorola co-CEO Sanjay Jha that if the handset manufacturer didn't drop Skyhook, Google would remove official Android support from the devices. This would mean that Motorola could not use the Android Market and other proprietary Google services or use the Android name.

So, without a place in the OS itself, Skyhook is working its way onto Android phones through third-party applications. ®

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