Is Location Tracking On Google WiFi Really Such A Big Deal?

from the probably-not dept

Lots of talk this weekend over sudden fears that the free Google-powered non-muni, muni-WiFi in San Francisco will be a privacy problem. The fear relates back to the recent concern over subpoenas of Google data by the government. The Google WiFi plan would require users to login, and would use some location-based tools to serve up locally specific ads. So, the story goes, Google knows where you are, meaning that the government can subpoena Google and then the government knows where you are. It all sounds very worrisome until you take a step back and realize how silly this actually seems. First of all, if the government is trying to track your location, figuring out where your mobile phone is is much more likely to yield useful information. In other words, if people are really worried about this, it seems like there are much more worrisome location tracking services that they should be paying attention too. At the same time, no one is ever required to use Google’s free WiFi. Hell, part of the deal is that this network will also have a fee-based offering from Earthlink that (we assume) won’t be so focused on location-specific info. However, any time you use any wireless network, there’s going to be some record of where you are, since you’re within range of whatever wireless system is being used. There’s nothing particularly special or more worrisome about Google’s efforts here — and it’s not clear why anyone is making a big deal out of it.

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Comments on “Is Location Tracking On Google WiFi Really Such A Big Deal?”

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AnarChaos says:

Google tracking

If they can pinpoint your cell phone, why not the laptop (or desktop)??? Granted, they can always supoena your ISP for homeinformation anyway. Any dummy can use reverse phone or reverse email anyway, even our lazy governments.

Just ask the conspiracy theorists what the strips are doing in the paper currency we carry. Tinfoil hats anyone??


(=’.’=) This is Bunny. Copy and paste Bunny into your

(“)_(“) signature to help him gain World Domination.

Curtis Edenfield says:


Lets see what eveyday Items you have that would allow anyone with enough tech savey to track YOU!


2)Satelite Radio

3)Satelite TV

4)OnStar( most every automaker has something like this )

5)GPS device

Everyone of these has a GPS trcacking chip in them. With the right tools someone could track your daily movments to within a few hundred feet of were you stand.

So unless you want to live like the 1800’s hiding out in the highcountry of Montana, deal with it an get on with your life.

My 2 cents


Joe R says:

Re: OnStar

Well actually….

There are plenty of cell phones that don’t have GPS on them. The ones that have them the most is Nextel. How do they track people then? They interpret signal strength from repeater to repeater so that HOPEFULLY, they can triangulate a rough position. It’s useful in tracking down the lost or kidnapped.

Satelite TV: I though about that one for a bit, and the more I thought about that, the less sense it makes. Satelite tv doesn’t have GPS in it. In fact, I doubt it’s a very mobile system at all. The dish is tied to the roof of your house, AND you need a phone line for it to communicate. They could just as easily CALL DISH, and say “this person, what’s their address?”

OnStar: Is limited only to GM vehicles. Every car that has one, regardless of brand, is actually a GM car. As far as the other’s go, there are very few that have that kind of in-car-service. Now what’s REALLY disturbing, is that the newest GM cars will preform self diagnostics, and through on-star, SEND YOU A DAMN EMAIL TELLING YOU IF YOU NEED AN OIL CHANGE!!! That is WEIRD!!! (I prefer the little sticker you get at Jiffy lube that tells you at what mileage to come back ^_~)

Curtis Edenfield says:

Re: Re: OnStar

Satelite TV: I though about that one for a bit, and the more I thought about that, the less sense it makes. Satelite tv doesn’t have GPS in it. In fact, I doubt it’s a very mobile system at all. The dish is tied to the roof of your house, AND you need a phone line for it to communicate. They could just as easily CALL DISH, and say “this person, what’s their address?”

Ok this I know is a stretch, but this is a experiment my Dad did. During the summer my parents head for cooler country to get out of the desert heat of Arizona. There’s a camp ground they go to on the border of Arizona an New Mexico, it stradles the border. Once he is more than 50 yards into New Mexico he no longer has local tv stations ( Phoenix area ) on his reciever.

An no you don’t have to have a phone line to operate it. The phone line is just to update the reciever (though it doesn’t need the phoneline to update). My Dad an Mom use their satelite when they travel in the motorhome. Many RV’s come with satelite allready on them, an don’t need a phone line.

Common Sense Guy says:

Re: Re: OnStar

First, I think it has been establinshed now that Satellite TV is portable. My parents take theirs with them from Alabama to Colorado every summer in their RV. They don’t need a different board, code or anything. They just pack up their reciever and have a second dish that they post on a stand at their campsite.

Second, most new cell phones have GPS chips as required by law for 911 systems. Most providers do not give their users access to the info, but some are now selling location services so your friends can feel assured that you are still in the next room (or so your parents can track you, whatever). The police can track the phone with the proper paperwork, but who knows what that is these days…. There are also services you can sign up for that allow you to do this. I read an article recently that describes how to use a pre-paid cell phone as a lo-jack system (or to track your teenagers in your car).

Finally, GM liscenses OnStar to anyone who will buy it. It is true that few people outside of GM customers want it (maybe few people including GM customers). Mercedes has a system, Lexus has a system, Acura has a system. I think BMW also is offering a similar service. Outside of GM it is typically limited to luxury or near luxery name plates because they’re the only ones with customers that don’t mind the monthy fees.

Regardless of all that drivel. The fact is that by the time the government supenas Google, you are likely to be somewhere else. And based on Google’s recent reaction to data requests I would bet that they would put up quite a fight before giving up live tracking of their customers. Having a stock price over $400/share allows them to afford good lawyers.

And I think there was a good comment in there someplace: Google isn’t going to force anyone to use the system. If you have extreme privacy issues (or forgot to wear tin foil on your head today), you don’t have to log into a WiFi spot. You can’t be tracked just by walking through a WiFi hotspot (yet).

For the most part the hype about this issue is alarmist non-sense and/or the press on a slow news day (Don’t they have a video of a bear in a tree being drugged by dart and falling onto a trampalene that they can show?). I’m not saying that we don’t need to keep an eye on individual rights these days. We should never stop thinking about the balance between privacy and access. But come on. You’re really gonna deny free internet access to millions of people because the government may be able to track down a drug dealer or a baby stealer using the system?

who cares says:

Re: OnStar

not one of you know what you are talking about in regards to onstar. i worked there and i KNOW that there are privacy laws in place so that you cannot track vehicles or invade anyones privacy without permission. for example you cannot track a vehicle using the gps without the customers permission and if the vehicle gets stolen you require a police report to have the vehicle tracked. As for the diagnostic email reports that is something customers willingly sign up for. we cannot STEAL your email and enroll you in a service where your vehicle does automatic diagnostics checks. it is something that people find beneficial and enroll in the program with complete knowledge of what the program consists of. and finally if you are going to hate on onstar learn the facts first. you are guessing how it works and making wrong assumptions. laws are in place for a reason and so are the company policies. if you dont like onstar dont buy it. p.s accura is a gm affiliate and not all gm customers get gm vehicles with onstar. not every gm vehicle comes standard with onstar. its a feature.

Curtis Edenfield says:

Re: Pirated Satelite

Think about what you just said. “They definately can not track you through satellite TV. Think about it: if they could, why would there be so many satellite pirates?” This has more to do with have local TV on your satelite reciever, but.

The card you have in your reciever has a unique code on it, copying that code to another card is old school technolgy. My whole family is on the same account with DirectTV in different physical locations in the east valley area of Phoenix. Direct TV sends a new cards to my parents house because the travel during the summer an don’t use a phone line during that time. I as well as my sister still have the same cards we started with. Every so often when Direct TV updates, over the phone, that unique code is also changed. Pirated cards are also updated to because they still have the code of a legit account.

Patrick says:

Re: Re: Pirated Satelite

It absolutely cracks me up the way people adhere to certain rules because they think the “Whatever it is Police” are going to show up and spank them. In this instance, the ol’ telephone line in the satallite reciever, fools more “otherwise intelligent” people than most anything I can think of ( Electronics Catagory) People…That phone line is connected so the satallite Comm. folks can monitor your TV watching habits. Its free demographics!….Besides ordering Pay Per View, which is un-necessary by most people’s opinion, Its useless! As soon as the installer has set up your system and is leaving, you can smile, wave, and jerk that sucker out of the wall.


John Dowdell (user link) says:

reason for the story

“… it’s not clear why anyone is making a big deal out of it….”

I read it as a political pressure ploy for more concessions. This is San Francisco. The campaign can tap into this season’s new-found blogger-queasiness over Google. I’m guessing there’s already a computer-subsidy program or two on file at City Hall. Some “moral action groups” will probably want the high-speed free, too. Lots of plums left to pick on this deal.

Check the history of the granting of local cable monopolies… local politicians get free airtime, employment concessions, more.

For me, the bigger privacy deal is when the SF Board of Supervisors starts blocking sites they find objectionable. “We shall not renew this deal until hate sites like the NRA are removed”… I can’t guess the specifics, but am pretty certain there will be a speech like this, sometime in the future. Then again, some of the local groups will eventually agitate for the removal of pro-sharia sites. That should be interesting to watch.

Alabama Kid (user link) says:

Walking within range could actually do that...

Someone made the point earlier that you “don’t have to use the WiFi hotspots if you don’t want to” and that’s true, however the claim that “nobody can track you just by walking through a hotspot” is actually quite false, as several corperate execs have found out recently on commercial airplanes and as mentioned on the TWiT Podcast.

By immitating a WiFi hotspot which their computer (mostly running windows) is set to trust and automatically connect to, a hacker can take a standard wifi AP and in about 10 minutes connect someone else’s laptop within range onto a fake, unguarded network. Typically large corporations who use WiFi have a certain SSID which is theirs. A hacker, if planned correctly, could take a laptop and put it inside a backpack (for a short time so it wouldn’t overheat) and walk by their office building with a wifi scanner scanning, getting the network’s SSID in passing. Afterwords, using WHOPPIX they could crack the WEP key the corporation uses in 10 minutes, and then proceed to do one of two things:

1. Go back to the corporation within wifi range and get on their wifi network, putting themselves inside the corperate LAN and instantly getting past most firewalls. They could do some basic SAMBA sniffing and crack any users NTLM password in less than 2 minutes, and from there, access any document they’d like.

2. Get within range of a corporate employee’s laptop while they’re out of the office (and therefore out of range of the company’s physical security measures, i.e. door locks and guards). With a run-of-the-mill residential router ($39 bucks at office depot, best buy, take your pick) they could setup the same SSID and WEP key and then the victim’s laptop would automatically connect. From there, they’re once again on a local network and have nearly unlimited access.

Granted, both of these are very risky, but in confined spaces such as commercial airlines, it’s easy to do and the victim often doesn’t know it, or suspects something is going wrong with their laptop, thinking “nobody would hack me way up here.” In special cases, when several million dollars of financial information or even government secrets are on the line, something as simple as not flipping off a hardware wifi switch can start a war.

It’s just something to think about. Everyone is a victim, and if I was paid 250,000 bucks to steal an account number for someone, I’m not sure I’d say no, if I could execute this type of plan. Sadly I’d probably chicken out before I even finished downloading WHOPPIX.

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