Germany "Horrified" That Google's Collecting Publicly-Available Data

from the your-new-world-order-has-a-pretty-rainbow-logo dept

German authorities launched a new fit of privacy hysteria last week after discovering that Google’s Street View cars are not only taking photographs — they’re recording the publicly-available router MAC addresses and SSIDs seen as the cars travel past Wi-Fi hotspots. UK and European politicians had already been up in arms about Americans wandering the streets taking pictures of citizens and completely non-secretive government buildings, and now Germany’s data protection chief is supposedly "horrified" by the discovery that Google is also collecting public wireless hotspot data. Of course a number of companies and individuals (like Skyhook Wireless and war drivers) have been doing this exact thing for years, but because it’s Google — somehow hysteria reigns.

Neither German authorities or those covering the story seem able to say how precisely an aggregate collection of public data will be used for nefarious purposes. The assumption simply is that Google has somehow figured out a way. The Register for instance informs readers that Google’s "uniquely cavalier approach to privacy" and "potential ability to cross reference the information raises additional concerns." Yet the report seems unable to tell readers what those concerns are, instead just assuming that Google must be doing something mischievous, and quoting CEO Eric Schmidt as saying users "shouldn’t worry about privacy unless they have something to hide." Of course what Schmidt actually said in that interview with CNBC was somewhat less sinister:

"If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place. But if you really need that kind of privacy, the reality is that search engines like Google do retain the information for some time, and we are all subject to the Patriot Act, and it is possible that that information may be made available to the authorities."

Though Schmidt does veer awfully close to the surveillance state meme of “if you don’t have anything to hide you’ve got nothing to worry about,” in context he’s simply saying the obvious: that if you want information kept private — don’t share it — given public data these days is collected and by proxy easily accessible to law enforcement.  With the outcries over Street View taking photographs of your front door, there’s nothing being collected that users can’t already see should they walk by. With Google’s collection of Wi-Fi data, there’s again nothing being collected that isn’t publicly available. MAC addresses (and in this case we’re just talking about hotspot MAC addresses) are changeable, and users can hide their SSID if they don’t want the world to see it.

That said, how the aggregate data is used by such a large corporation is very important, and people should push Google to be as transparent as possible — but there’s a difference between asking reasonable questions about Google’s data collection practices and just assuming the worst possible scenario. Google isn’t publishing this data — and two different blog posts explain how much data they’re collecting, why it’s being collected, and how it’s being used largely to aid in GPS triangulation and local search. Though clearly from there they’ll feed this data into the heads up displays of Google shock troops clad in black gunmetal body armor — who can then carry out Google’s master plan of taking over the planet using your Linksys details.

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Comments on “Germany "Horrified" That Google's Collecting Publicly-Available Data”

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Nastybutler77 (profile) says:

Re: Waitaminute

That may be true, but that’s not Google’s fault. Unless/until there are laws in place blocking gathering of publicly available info, Google is within their rights. But I’m sure it won’t be long before Germany’s and other governments pass knee-jerk laws forbidding this type of data gathering. After all the government hates competition…

Trails (profile) says:

Hidden SSID's not actually secure, or hidden

The only way to keep people out of your wifi network is to use encryption.

The only way to keep a determined hacker out of your wifi is to use good encryption (not WEP) with a strong password (not “i love zack efron”).

Anonymous Coward says:

I wondered how Apple’s “Core Location” services work on the GoogleMaps application on the iPod Touch over WiFi. Can you still sniff the MAC address on a WPA2-PSK connection?

I thought it was weird that the Google Maps location was always in the middle of the street behind me. This meant their data wasn’t based on the internet service address.

That road behind me side has a visual to the WiFi router, so the signal strength could be stronger.

Anonymous Coward says:

i am constantly amazed at the bizarre standards that the masnick uses. complaining about large databases and then seeing nothing wrong with large databases. waffling and sitting on both sides of a situation, being nicer to google and their endless data and being pretty rude to everyone else who dares collect any type of data.

Nick Coghlan (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I don’t think techdirt has ever stated any particular concern over appropriately constrained data collection. In this case, Google is collecting the bare minimum of information (SSID, MAC address, street car location) needed to provide a specific service (efficient, GPS independent geolocation).

A DPA audit to confirm that really is all they’re collecting is likely a good idea, but the basic service is fine.

Where massive databases are objectionable is when they overreach and collect data that has nothing to do with their stated purpose (or will obviously fail to achieve their stated purpose while still creating plenty of unnecessary vulnerabilities).

Strange as it may seem to TAM, it actually is possible to hold a nuanced opinion that lies somewhere between “data collection is always OK” and “data collection is always evil”.

titus says:

Re: Re: Re:

I agree with the middle of the road philosophy. What would be great to see at Google is them adopting, very publicly, a stance with a 3rd party privacy organization for oversight. Most of the things coming out of Google are good, but built by engineers without much of a clue as to the general public (buzz, for example). They never understood the negative backlash against them for buzz. This is a fundamental problem with a company whose stated goal is to index all information. Let’s have some consumer group, or privacy organization, weigh in on Google’s inventions before they go public. Or at least have the Opt In feature on most things, not Opt Out. I have, and use, many google programs and features and love them. I do not, however, feel that they have my privacy in their best interests. And don’t even get me started on Facebook…

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

perhaps you can ask this tam person, maybe she has an opinion. mine is that the masnick has stated before that databases of information are bad because they always get hacked. for google, combine the info they have here, connect to open wireless units to find their logged on ip (all public knowledge) and combine it with searches from that ip and viola, you have personally identifiable information. google has access to both pools of data. you dont think someone will or hasnt already linked them together just to see?

lostalaska (profile) says:

when google street view came through my town...

When Google Street view had a car come through my home town Juneau, Alaska USA there was a huge uproar. I work in IT and I had a lot of people coming up to me freaking out because they could see their house on the internet I would then explain to the people the process of what Google does to collect the imagery and how it’s not really any different from people walking along the street seeing their house and taking a picture of it from public property. It might not “feel” right, but it’s legal.

At the time I think the most common fear I heard from people complaining about Google Street View was that they had their kids toys in the front yard and a pedophile could use street view to target their child. Oh, crazy parents now days watching too much news in the summer when news is slow and child kidnappings headlines are all the rage.

I think working in IT has had an adverse effect on me, I just had to do a search and replace of this post; users to people.

titus says:

once bitten, twice shy

I think that Germany is right in one sense. They have lived through the dark times of a power hungry regime that used innocuous information for nefarious purposes. They now have the foresight to look out for things that lead down the slippery slope of darkness and nip it in the bud. Maybe they are going too far, but they are at least asking the questions. It takes us a bit longer because our leadership is all draped in flags and patriotism. Saying one thing, while doing another, and using the Faux media to tell us this is what America needs. I can only hope that our citizens will also get a clue down the road and respond with a bit more concern when every aspect of their lives is in some large database, easily mined by the powers that be.

Anonymous Coward says:

Perhaps Germany officials don’t want to make it easier for people to access the Internet for free, they would rather everyone pay some government monopolized ISP monopoly prices instead. Maybe it’s the ISP’s who lobbied for their reaction for that very reason? Anywho, that’s the overly cynical reason.

I don’t really think this is the reason and I do think that they do have some legitimate concerns.

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