Skip to main content

Google lets Wi-Fi hotspot owners opt out of location database

Image used with permission by copyright holder

Google has announced it is now enabling Wi-Fi hotspot operators to opt out of Google’s broad location service. The mechanism is simple and yet also inelegant: to opt out, hotspot operators must change the names of their base stations to end in _nomap. So, a network named CafeWireless that didn’t want to be used in Google’s location services would have to change its name to CafeWireless_nomap.

As Google drives around taking pictures for Street View and conducting mapping operations for other services, it notes information broadcast about Wi-Fi networks in the area. Those details then get cached in the Google Location Server; when an Android phone or other device needs information about its physical location, it can use information about Wi-Fi networks in the area to help narrow things down. Although most smartphones and other location-aware devices include GPS receivers that can provide very accurate location information, the Wi-Fi data is often good enough to figure out (say) what businesses are in the area or what members of someone’s social network might be nearby. The Wi-Fi method can also be faster than GPS and has the advantage of working indoors and in urban canyons where GPS can be unreliable.

However, Google has taken heat from privacy advocates and regulators (particularly in Europe), since the system can potentially collect information about individual’s private home networks and systems and use it as part of a broader service offering. Although Google claims none of the information it gathers can be used to identify individual people (as long as users don’t name their network something like Firstname_Lastname—which does happen), just collecting network information can be an invasion of privacy by revealing a Wi-Fi network is operating in a particular location.

To address these concerns, Google is letting Wi-Fi hotspot operators opt out of the location system by affixing _nomap to their base station SSIDs—and Google says it hopes the practice will be universally supported by other services building and maintaining similar location services. The _nomap idea has the advantage of being nearly universally-applicable to any Wi-Fi base station—essentially every Wi-Fi base station ever made can have its SSID set to an arbitrary string, and all support the required characters. No software or firmware updates will be required, although users will have to know how (and have permissions) to change their base station’s SSID.

Privacy advocates have recommended Google go with an opt-in approach, letting Wi-Fi hotspot operators who are willing to participate in location services volunteer to have their base station locations recorded.

In addition to being ugly, Google’s opt-out solution also broadcasts that a base station operator is opting out of location services…and that could turn into an unwanted label or stigma. Wi-Fi base stations typically broadcast their SSIDs so devices and users can find and connect to the network. The _nomap suffix may not be a big deal to someone operating a home hotspot out in the middle of nowhere, but for a business or other site operating a public hotspot, the suffix is ugly and potentially creates confusion for users, including questions about the meaning of the suffix and why someone would want to opt out of location services. The _nomap suffix is the Wi-Fi equivalent of Google requiring home owners who don’t want to be part of Street View to paint a giant “G” on their door with a slash through it—and it’s a good bet homeowners would object to that.

Editors' Recommendations

Geoff Duncan
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Geoff Duncan writes, programs, edits, plays music, and delights in making software misbehave. He's probably the only member…
What AMD needs to do to beat Nvidia in 2024
The AMD Radeon RX 7900 XTX graphics card.

In this generation of GPUs, it's not AMD that has the best graphics cards -- it's still Nvidia. AMD's offerings have been strong, but Nvidia trumps it in pure performance, reaching for the stars with the wildly overpriced RTX 4090 while AMD keeps things slightly more reasonable with the RX 7900 XTX.

What can AMD do to turn things around and come out on top in 2024? Will it gain an edge over Nvidia? Signs are pointing to an interesting battle ahead, but for AMD to win, there are a few things that need to happen.
Is AMD as good as it can be in 2023?

Read more
This Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon laptop is 62% off right now
lenovo thinkpad x1 oled deal march 2022 extreme feature shot

Lenovo probably has one of the widest laptop offerings of any brand, so if you're looking for a work laptop, then Lenovo has some great options. For example, the ThinkPad X1 Carbon Gen 11 is made to be the quintessential work laptop with a lot of quintessential business-related features. You can grab it now from Lenovo for just $1,200 rather than the usual $3,229, although it is important to note that, while it may seem like a large discount, Lenovo does have a tendency to over-rice the list price of the ThinkPad X1 Carbon. That's not to say it's a great deal; taking the laptop as is without the MSRP, the $1,200 is still excellent.

Why you should buy the ThinkPad X1 Carbon Gen 11
Under the hood, the ThinkPad X1 Carbon has an Intel Core i7-1365U vPro Processor, which is a mid-to-high-end processor in the latest generation, so you're getting something up-to-date. It also means that you're going to be able to handle pretty much all productivity work without issue, and that includes everything from document processing to slideshow making. It can also likely get some editing work done, which is handy if you need a couple to do a bit of simple photo editing now and again. Besides the powerful processor, the 32GB of DDR5 RAM will give you an overall solid day-to-day experience. Plus, it's a good amount of RAM to have if you're a programmer or do a lot of CAD stuff.

Read more
This HP gaming PC with an RTX 4090 is $1,000 off right now
HP Omen 45L logo on desktop.

Building a PC from scratch can be daunting, and if you don't have the time or the tech-savvy, then going for a pre-built gaming PC might be a much better option. Luckily, there are a lot of excellent deals on them, especially from big companies like Dell and HP. That said, if you want something with the best specs on the market, this HP Omen 45L is probably one of the best, with a massive sale on it. While is usually goes for $4,000, HP has discounted it down to $3,000, and while that may seem like a lot, that's a good price for the specs it has.

Why you should buy the HP Omen 45L
Behind the plexiglass of the case, you'll find an RTX 4090, the most powerful GPU currently available on the market. It is the only card that will actually let you hit over 100FPS at 4k with high graphical settings, so if you want to game at 4k with a high framerate, the RTX 4090 is perfect. Not only that, but the RTX 4090 is leaps and bounds better than any other card when it comes to ray tracing, and you even get access to the latest DLSS 3.0 technology, although you may not need it given the pure processing power that it has.

Read more