In a report to Canada’s privacy commissioner, Internet giant Google has revealed that it was no plans to resume accumulating Wi-Fi network data as its camera-equipped vans travel around photographing public spaces for its Street View service. Google suspended the practice earlier this year after it admitted to inadvertently collecting user data over unsecured Wi-Fi networks while photographing for Street View. The report, released by the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, indicates “collection is discontinued and Google has no plans to resume it.”
Google began collecting Wi-Fi network data as part of its Street View operations as a way to supplement GPS-based location services: the idea is that a Wi-Fi enabled device can take a snapshot of Wi-Fi base station IDs and networks in its area and send the data to a central service; based on that information, the device’s approximate physical location could be determined. The service is potentially useful in areas (like urban canyons) where GPS service is spotty or unreliable.
In collecting the data, Google also captured user data sent over unsecured Wi-Fi networks: this could include email messages, passwords, account information, and other sensitive or personally-identifiable information. Google actions garnered swift attention from legal and regulatory authorities, although the United Kingdom cleared Google of any intentional wrongdoing.
However, Google doesn’t plan to give up on determining devices’ locations by looking up Wi-Fi networks in their area: instead of using its Street View vans, Canadian privacy commissioner Jennifer Stoddart indicates Google intents to built its Wi-Fi location database using information shared by users of WiFi-enabled mobile handsets with Google services. When users choose to share their device’s location with location-aware services powered by Google—such as requesting a location fix from Google Maps—Google will apparently take a snapshot of wireless hotspots in the area, omitting mobile hotspots created by portable access points and notebook computers.
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