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Google Street View Raises Questions About Privacy, We Provide Answers

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The Google Street View Car

The Google Street View Car

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San Francisco's Ferry Building, with business listing in Street View

San Francisco's Ferry Building, with business listing in Street View

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Last spring and summer, Google was embroiled in a brief but heated scandal involving data collection for its Street View service. America hasn't seen much fallout from the debacle, but courts in other parts of the world have dealt the folks from Mountain View a few setbacks. What does this mean for Google, for satellite navigation, and individual privacy? Let's see.

A recap

Just a quick summary of the story as it evolved: in April of this year, Germany asked Google to explain the sorts of information its Street View cars collect as they roll along highways and byways. Google explained that the cars collect three types of data: (a) pictures, which are stitched together to make Street View; (b) low-res 3D building images; and (c) names and addresses of open wifi networks. 

Items A and B weren't much of a problem: even though people are touchy about strangers taking photos of public places in this post 9/11 world, it's still legal. The wifi thing, though...well, that's far less cut and dry.

Google uses wifi networks -- just open ones, ones that aren't hidden -- to help pinpoint the location of Maps and Street View users. Essentially, those networks function in the same way that cell towers do: Google checks to see which cell towers and wifi networks your mobile device can "see", which helps pinpoint your location. Wifi is great for that purpose, because wifi networks have much shorter ranges than cell towers, meaning that they can provide more accurate location stats.

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Comments (2)
  1. Good balanced blog post, filled with facts (as far as I can tell, having followed the story pretty closely since May). Unlike a multitude of other bloggers, you seem to refrain from the temptation to incite fear in order to get more hits (i.e. "Google stole YOUR emails, URLs and passwords ...").
    But as for the suggestions in your last paragraph - don't think that can happen. Privacy organizations won't allow it, but also - how would it even be possible? I imagine it costs Google a fortune just to obtain static pictures every few years. Who has the kind of budget that would allow more frequent updates?

  2. @Claudia: I'm not sure of the technology that would be involved in such an enterprise, but I DO know that data collection and transmission is happening increasingly fast. We're now surrounded by real-time data about weather, traffic -- it's probably just a matter of time before we make the jump to maps. If I had to hazard a guess, I'd look to nanotech, but that's just me.

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