Google lets Wi-Fi hotspot owners opt out of location service

The company was pressured by European privacy regulators

Bowing to pressure from European privacy regulators, Google will soon allow owners of Wi-Fi access points to opt out of a Google service that allows smartphone owners to identify their location without using GPS (Global Positioning System), it said Tuesday.

On the same day, Google announced it will not appeal an order from the Dutch Data Protection Authority (CBP) requiring it to destroy records of 3.6 million Wi-Fi SSIDs (service set identifiers) it collected in breach of Dutch privacy laws, IDG's Dutch news site Webwereld.nl reported.

By detecting the identity of a nearby Wi-Fi access point and looking up its geographic location in a database, Google can tell a smartphone owner roughly where they are. But so far, the owners of those Wi-Fi base stations haven't had a say in how their location information is used.

Now Google plans to build an opt-out service so that access point owners can ask that their data not be used to determine the location of smartphones, it said Tuesday.

The opt-out service will be available globally, although it was created at the instigation of European privacy regulators, Google Global Privacy Counsel Peter Fleischer wrote on a company blog.

The company will release details of how to opt out of the service by the end of the year, when the service is ready, he wrote.

Google collected the disputed geographic Wi-Fi data by having its Streetview vehicles scan for Wi-Fi signals at the same time as they recorded panoramic images for its mapping service, an action that some European data protection regulators condemned as an invasion of privacy.

Part of the reason for the regulators' anger was that Google collected far more information than it needed simply to identify the Wi-Fi base stations.

The French National Commission on Computing and Liberty (CNIL), discovered that Google had also recorded private communications being transmitted over unencrypted Wi-Fi connections, including usernames and passwords. The Commission fined Google €100,000 (US$142,000) for that.

Peter Sayer covers open source software, European intellectual property legislation and general technology breaking news for IDG News Service. Send comments and news tips to Peter at peter_sayer@idg.com.

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Peter Sayer

IDG News Service
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