CNet is reporting that while attempting to make a complete list of Wi-Fi access points, Google has also recorded (and in some cases, released) a glut of personal location information with their Street View mapping cars. This comes after previous reports supporting the claim, and a hefty 100,000 euro ($143,000) fine from the French Commission Nationale de l’Informatique et des Libertés (CNIL) for gathering unique identifiers for Wi-Fi-enabled hardware.
Google’s stated goal was, in addition to mapping the roads of the world, to provide a complete list of Wi-Fi access points. This data could be used for a variety of purposes, from helping weary travelers find easy-to-use Internet connections to aiding completely lost travelers with psuedo-GPS. In an interesting twist, this was the same goal Apple purported to during their own user location data scandal. The difference is that Google seems to have recorded unique identifiers of computers, phones, and other Wi-Fi enabled devices along with Wi-Fi hotspots.
Before you bust out the torches, pitchforks, wetsuits, and tridents and march off to Mountain View, CA., let’s put this in perspective. The information in question is the Media Access Control (MAC) address of Wi-Fi-capable devices and only their location on the moment when the Street View car drove by. Though MAC addresses are unique, they are hardly damning pieces of personal information. What’s more, just because you knew where someone was on a particular day doesn’t actually give you much more information than you could gain from actual observation.
The real issue, as CNet and others have reported, is that Google was not sifting their data before publishing it. The public Wi-Fi access points are useful to have on the public record, but publishing the MAC address of someone’s computer is quite useless to most people and quite creepy for the computer’s owner. Moreover, Google has provided no way to have your information remove from the listing once published. It should, however, be noted that Google no longer makes this information completely public.
While Google continues to churn out some stellar products and has, without a doubt, changed the information landscape forever, it sometimes fails a common sense test. Their experiment with Buzz is a prime example, and this recent misstep continues the tradition. In some ways, Google’s enthusiasm and willingness to try new things has been its greatest asset. Now that they have the money and stature to do just about whatever they want, perhaps its time they balance that enthusiasm with some restraint.