Monday 3 May 2010

Google to be quizzed on its Streetview Wi-Fi database

According to those bright hacks at “The Register”, the (British) Information Commissioner’s Office is about to ask Google a few questions about the information its Street View cars have collected about Wi-Fi networks. Apparently, the Streetview fleet has been recording the MAC addresses and locations of Wi-Fi networks as they photograph national road networks - and the ICO only realised what was going on when a German regulator launched an attack on Google last month.

Peter Schaar, Germany's Federal Commissioner for Data Protection, is apparently "horrified" by the data gathering exercise. He has been demanding that the Wi-Fi database be deleted. But I'm relying on a journo for this information so Peter may be not have been as horrified as all that. Especially after all the other reported data scares in Germany over the past few years. He's a pretty rounded guy, actually.

Our set of regulators appear to be pragmatic, and have not yet rushed to diss the guys from Google. (Hey, we're all pretty streetwise in Blighty.) The ICO is trying to find out just how the data is being processed and used by Google. If the firm were just collecting details of what Wi-Fi networks covered particular public locations, then that seems quite innocuous. But if the database were also to contain details of the Wi-Fi’s security settings, then that could be a bit trickier to justify. However, if all Google are doing is merely collecting and using information that is publicly broadcast, it’s hard to know how those minded to will object. If we didn’t mind when Skyhook and Intel did it, (or if they ever have done it, of course, I’m reminded to say by my legal chums) then why should we bother when Google does it too?

Germany concerns may be more due to fears that a national database of Wi-Fi MAC addresses or network names could prove a boon to authorities tracking online activity. Similarly, easy look-up of encryption standards on Wi-Fi routers might be useful to investigators, or criminals. But are we worried that the British authorities get an equivalent tool to play with? We Brits are made of sterner stuff. We know how effective large databases are. And how easy they are to maintain. Especially when they’re designed for the public sector. I can’t see us losing much sleep over such a data grabbing exercise. We’ve got a recession. And a Government (in waiting) just waiting to impose draconian cuts in public spending. Will this scheme (if it exists) survive the Chancellor’s knife?

Not a hope ...

But what does interest me is how much smaller (and lighter) these cameras and Wi-Fi sniffing devices are getting. The first image was probably taken early last year. The second was probably taken late last year. How long before the device fits into the shiny top of a PC’s helmet?

Makes you wonder.

Then we may well see a new slant to the concept of “community policing”.