woensdag 24 augustus 2011

How Data Protection Commissioners fight a lost, former war on Google Streetview

The privacy or data protection bodies in Europe and elsewhere are fighting Google for collecting WiFi router's addresses and names while taking Streetview pictures. They seem unable to see that Google does not need Streetview any more for this purpose.

In The Netherlands the commission is named the CBP or “College Bescherming Persoonsgegevens”. Because I am a former commissioner I will stick with my comment to the Dutch example, but it will be similar in other countries, and not just European

When it became known that Google collected the name (SSID) and address (IP & MAC) of WiFi access points while taking pictures for the Streetview function, all privacy hell broke loose. And maybe not quite rightly so. No-one was previously informed or aware that this information was being collected. On the other hand one could claim, as Google did, that a MAC address points at most to a house, not to a person and therefore would not be personal data. Google has long held that it was a mistake, not on purpose and sorry, sorry, sorry, we will not do so again. They don't need to as we will see.

Why would anyone want to know all WiFi information? To break into routers? Well no. But if you combine the information with a geo-position (from Streetview's GPS co-ordinates) you get a better and faster GPS location-fix next time. Also WiFi will work where there is no GPS signal (indoors, in small alleys and crowded towns). This is a form of enhanced GPS (E-GPS) which provides not just better accuracy but it is a lot cheaper than the commercial versions (called eGPS by CSR and Motorola).

So, if you need advanced GPS information and you have cars driving around towns anyway, why not collect geo-info + WiFi-info at the same time? That is smart thinking. So now the privacy commissioners have in fact forbidden this much enhanced form of information gathering. But have they thought about the future?

The future is not about cars driving around in cities. And the future is here and here to stay. The future is the crowd (not the cloud BTW).

Most people using mobile phones have their WiFi turned on most of the time. They also use their GPS, even though GPS and WiFi both consume energy. Now if you are using Google technology, such as Google+, Navigation, Latitude or Maps (available on most platforms), you will use both GPS and an internet connection. The internet connection will be either 3G or WiFi. Your phone will use both connections to get a better geo-fix and also send the combined GPS and WiFi information back to Google.

Now Google does not need a Streetview car any more for the WiFi locations. The crowd is bringing the information to Google and the crowd also uses the information to get a faster and better geo-fix. So the crowd may be breaching privacy and data protection laws, but they do so for their own good.

Does the story end here? No, my friends and readers. The crowd also takes pictures and stores them (with geo-info) on the internet. As Microsoft has shown, combining many random photos from the crowd can give you a full picture (called Photosynth). Collect as many pictures as you can, with location data, smart combine these and you can park the Streetview cars forever. Streetview will always be up to date, much more so than today.

Privacy? The crowd is taking the pictures and posting these on the internet. Google “just uses the publicly available data” (photos, movies, sound, geo-fixes …). Smart.

For deeper info on WiFi, Street View, MAC address, SSID and privacy, search Wikipedia.

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