Google Maps can Track Your Phone

by Matt Klassen on June 16, 2011

It started with the revelation that Apple’s iPhone contained a latent tracking program that was able to track, record, and send your mobile usage information, at times leaving the information exposed to whoever had the means and intent to view it. Such a violation of our mobile privacy had the tech world in an uproar, as everyone suddenly had the ominous feeling that they were being watched by the very devices they depended on daily.

But in the latest twist of the privacy soap opera, it’s no longer Apple cast as the villain, but Google, the company who tries so hard not to be evil that it often seems to be the most evil of all.

According to a CNET report, not only does it appear that Google’s Map service is able to track a user’s location with startling precision, but Google makes such location information publicly available, meaning that if you have Wi-Fi turned on, the previous whereabouts of your devices—and thus you—may be available for everyone to see.

As I mentioned, it is often those who try to do the least evil that end up doing the most, and this couldn’t be truer for Google. This latest privacy scandal, to which Google may be quickly becoming accustomed to, has relatively innocuous, and indeed useful, beginnings. It all begins with Android and the ability of the mobile operating system to locate mobile Wi-Fi hotspots and transmit the unique MAC address of those hotspots back to Google.

As CNET News’ Declan McCullagh explains:

Here’s how it works: Wi-Fi-enabled devices, including PCs, iPhones, iPads, and Android phones, transmit a unique hardware identifier, called a MAC address, to anyone within a radius of approximately 100 to 200 feet. If someone captures or already knows that unique address, Google and Skyhook’s services can reveal a previous location where that device was located, a practice that can reveal personal information including home or work addresses or even the addresses of restaurants frequented.

Google has enabled Android to do this in an effort to comprehensively map hotspots and data points around the globe, with the ultimate purpose of allowing its location and map services to run quicker and smoother than they would it they relied solely on GPS.

But while Google’s intentions may be to streamline location services, like so many of its well-intentioned services before, this one comes with a downside.

Again, let’s be clear. Almost every mobile device on the market tracks and sends Wi-Fi information in this manner, the only difference in Google’s case (and apparently Skyhook Wireless) is that it makes the addresses of these Wi-Fi locations available to the public.

But is there anything to worry about? As with most of the privacy scandals of late, there are some creepy aspects to it, as savvy mobile users can potentially use such information to track the whereabouts of specific people, but it’s certainly not easy. While there is still the question of why Google makes such location information public, I would guess that there’s little to worry about.

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Written by: Matt Klassen. www.digitcom.ca. Follow TheTelecomBlog.com by: RSS, Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube.

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