updated 02:45 pm EDT, Mon June 27, 2011
Google map data goes Apple, Microsoft route
Google is quietly changing a controversial policy towards showing Wi-Fi device locations, a source said Monday. The company is reportedly backing off of an approach that would let anyone who knows a device's MAC (Media Access Control) address find out where it had been to within 100 to 200 feet. What the changes will be haven't been outlined to CNET but, in a 3,000-device test, may have involved cutting off location reporting on the server side.
The changes may be mostly to remove script support but not the web.
Google officially claims the Wi-Fi devices are limited to hotspots, but it acknowledged that Android, iPhones, and other devices acting as Wi-Fi hotspots might get caught and only discarded if they move too often. A spokesperson also wouldn't commit to saying for certain that regular phones wouldn't get caught in the mix.
Any backing off may be a reflection both of having been uncovered as well as of a push to more closely emulate the more privacy-bound models of Apple and Microsoft. Apple has ended up collecting Wi-Fi data but has never sent it directly to its servers or made the information public. Microsoft also doesn't publish Windows Phone locations in an externally accessible format.
The Google format isn't immediately dangerous as it depends on already knowing hardware ID but, until the recent changes, could be used to scrape information at a public access point and potentially use it to track or identify an individual. Such access may have helped spur on new Senate proposals that could require more explicit consent for getting mobile location data.