September 14, 2011
Google Offers Opt-out For Wireless Router Owners
In an effort to calm European privacy regulators, Internet search giant Google announced Tuesday that it would allow people around the world that use home wireless routers the option of removing their devices from a registry the company uses to locate cellphone users, reports The Associated Press.The consideration will give wireless (Wi-Fi) networks the right to forbid Google from listing them in a vast database that the company has been building for the past few years. European privacy leaders have periodically checked in on Google to see if the company´s mapping services were in violation of Europe´s privacy laws.
With many regulators still concerned over Google´s privacy practices, the company decided to make the move to allow Wi-Fi routers to opt out of the system. Up until now, Google has been using publicly broadcast Wi-Fi data from wireless access points to improve its location-based services.
By using access point signals rather than GPS, Google says smartphones are able to fix their general location quickly without using a lot of energy.
“Even though the wireless access point signals we use in our location services don´t identify people, we think we can go further in protecting people´s privacy,” Peter Fleischer, Google's global privacy counsel, said in a recent blog post.
“At the request of several European data protection authorities, we are building an opt-out service that will allow an access point owner to opt out from Google's location services. Once opted out, our services will not use that access point to determine users´ locations,” he wrote.
While it is currently only European regulators that have been concerned over the mapping practices, Google said the opt-out would be made available internationally to defuse future concerns from other countries.
“Google in this case is only doing voluntarily what they would probably have been forced to do under German and European law anyway,” Ulrich Borger, a Hamburg, Germany privacy lawyer for Latham & Watkins, a US law firm, told the Los Angeles Times.
Google´s latest move comes a little more than a year after it enraged European officials by collecting unencrypted Internet data from residential Wi-Fi routers while working on its StreetView mapping system. Google apologized for the accidental collection of data, which it said was caused by a programming error, and has since settled most national complaints.
Google said it plans to introduce the new opt-out system later this fall, according to Fleischer.
Following the privacy issues with StreetView in Europe and elsewhere, Google has taken a more pacifying approach in countries like Germany and France, which had previously expressed strong objections to its data-collection practices.
Google last year began giving consumers in Germany the option to exclude photos of their homes, apartments and businesses from the StreetView online map service before it went live. As a result, the panoramic views are now available throughout much of Germany, although with some locations blotted out.
The controversy over Wi-Fi data collection arose again this year when European privacy regulators in Germany and France began probing Apple, after researchers uncovered files on the popular iPhone that routinely logged the location of users, thanks in part to the location of nearby Wi-Fi routers.
In May, the privacy advisory panel to the European Commission said the collection of location data of individual cellphone users was in violation of Europe´s privacy laws, which forbids the commercial use of private data without an owner´s permission.
Apple stopped the automatic collection of data on iPhone users through a software fix. French privacy regulator, CNIL, and privacy officials in Bavaria, Germany dropped their investigation once Apple complied.
Borger said Google wanted to avoid another public investigation that could damage its reputation. While allowing users to opt out of Google´s tracking system may limit its ability to sell location-based advertising, it will not prevent the company from using cell towers and GPS systems, two common methods of finding a cellphone, to sell its location-specific ads.
In urban areas, cell towers are closer together, allowing advertisers to pinpoint a user´s location to within a few blocks.
The mobile business is becoming increasingly important to Google, especially in Europe. As computing quickly shifts from PCs to smartphones and other mobile devices, Google is seeing the bulk of its advertising revenue coming from that market.
Google is also under investigation in Europe for allegedly calculating its rankings to hinder smaller, rival engines, a charge the company has denied.
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