San Francisco's Ferry Building, with business listing in Street ViewEnlarge Photo
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.
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.