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Google and Others Still Have Your Location, Location, Location

Not that long ago, Google (GOOG) claimed its Android location tracking was totally anonymous. Apple (AAPL) insisted that it only marked the location of Wi-Fi hotspots and cell phone towers. Unfortunately, assurance that location privacy was safe appears to have been premature.

A report by Declan McCullagh at CNET shows that the data vendors collect can pinpoint precise location. The finding just adds more fuel to the calls for greater regulation of high tech and privacy. And the companies' penchant for logic-chopping and word-twisting will only bring that day sooner.

As I noted in April, Wi-Fi and cell tower data can be enough to pinpoint locations. It's the ages old method of using triangulation. Find where someone is relative to fixed points, and you have a reasonably accurate position. And as McCullagh reports, that's exactly the type of data that all the vendors collect:

Android phones with location services enabled regularly beam the unique hardware IDs of nearby Wi-Fi devices back to Google, a similar practice followed by Microsoft, Apple, and Skyhook Wireless as part of each company's effort to map the street addresses of access points and routers around the globe. That benefits users by helping their mobile devices determine locations faster than they could with GPS alone.
The additional problem with Google and Skyhook is that they make their location databases publicly available. Anyone can find the connections between physical addresses and hardware IDs -- which, in the case of mobile phones, is virtually the same as saying the handset's owner.

According to security researcher Ashkan Soltani, who worked with CNET on this project, "approximately 10 percent of laptops and mobile phones using Wi-Fi appear to be listed by Google as corresponding to street addresses." As for Apple and Microsoft (MSFT), they get data. It's just not available on the Internet.

The bigger privacy issue isn't the sole province of the platform owners. Even app vendors get involved:

The problem is that for advertising, particularly mobile, personal location is a valuable commodity, and vendors of all sorts want to reap it. They can talk about self-regulation until the cows come home, but they have made clear that it will be at most window dressing to lull consumers. Senators Al Franken and Richard Blumenthal have co-sponsored a location privacy bill.

Realistically speaking, this is just the beginning. Too many people on both sides of the aisle in Congress have indicated their concern about consumer privacy. Given that Europe has managed to be both more advanced in mobile services and in privacy protection, it's not as though the one will make the other impossible. U.S.-based companies need to stop whining and start innovating.


Image: Flickr user Rob Enslin, CC 2.0.