Access points are used by mobile devices in pin-pointing their location
With European privacy regulators strong-arming it no doubt, Google has unveiled plans for a new program that would enable WiFi access point owners, i.e. anyone with a router, to opt out of Google's location provider services.Google, as do all other location providers, rely on GPS, cell phone towers and WiFi router location data to accurately pin-point a device's location, on request.
This data is used by Google Maps and any other app or service requiring location data. Of the three data sources, WiFi router location data is the most readily available, easiest to determine and surprisingly accurate.
GPS signals can be weak or nonexistent in crowded cities, cell phone tower data is only good for determining a general, broad area, not pin-pointing a location.
But, whereas GPS and cell tower location data are available to device manufacturers and service providers for the very purpose of determining location, WiFi routers were certainly not designed for this and most owners don't even realize that their devices are used in this way.
Google and every other location data provider had cars roaming the streets of the world picking up WiFi signals and mapping them with GPS data. It then stores this massive amount of data and uses it whenever a device asks for its location.
A service like this only stores the WiFi router's internal identifier and its location, so it is hardly a privacy violation.
Until last year, the practice, while not secret, was not exactly advertised by Google. The company used its Street View cars to gather WiFi network location data.
But then, the whole Street View WiFi data fiasco happened. The software designed to store WiFi location actually gathered and stored public data streaming over open networks.
After discovering this, Google stopped capturing any WiFi data, but the privacy breach had broad implications for the company. It has been found guilty of violating privacy regulations or laws in many countries and some investigations are still ongoing.
Now, Google is going one step forward and will allow individuals to opt out of location tracking services offered by the company. Anyone around the world will be able to request that their devices are not used for location services.
"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, Global Privacy Counsel at Google, wrote.
"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 explained.
"We’ll be making this opt-out available globally, and we’ll release more detailed information about it when it’s ready to launch later this autumn," he said.