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Google under fire

November 16, 2011

A new WiFi opt-out policy comes after pressure from the Dutch Data Protection Authority, which threatened to levy a fine. Google's global privacy counsel says the firm will 'do more to address privacy concerns.'

Google Street View car
Google collected the WiFi data as part of Street ViewImage: picture alliance/dpa

Google announced this week it would change the way it collects data about the physical location of WiFi routers worldwide after coming under pressure from Dutch privacy authorities.

WiFi network operators worldwide will now be able to opt-out of Google's scanning program, which the US firm uses to provide geolocation services.

In April, the Dutch Data Protection Authority (DPA) criticized Google, saying it needed to contact 3.6 million WiFi network owners in the Netherlands and offer them a way to have their data removed from Google's servers.

The DPA also threatened to fine Google 1 million euros ($1.4 million) if it continued to scan for people's WiFi routers. The Dutch authority says it will drop the threat of a fine if Google does in fact allow people to opt-out of the scanning scheme.

But in an English-language statement on its website on Tuesday, the DPA said it had "not yet established in detail that all of its requirements have been met."

Peter Fleischer
Peter Fleischer says Google will do more to allay users' concerns

Locating more quickly

Geolocation data makes it much faster for individuals to determine where they are and find services around them.

"By looking for wireless access points that are close to a user's phone, location providers can return the approximate location you need," wrote Peter Fleischer, Google's global privacy counsel, in an English-language blog post on Monday.

"In addition, this method is a good alternative to other approaches, like GPS, because it's faster, it works indoors, and it's more battery efficient," Fleischer said.

But Fleischer noted the company would "do more to address privacy concerns."

Google will no longer scan networks that have a network name (or SSID) with "_nomap" as a suffix.

"For example, if your SSID is 'Network,' you'd need to change it to 'Network_nomap,'" Fleischer wrote.

He added Google hopes that this becomes an industry-wide standard.

"This would help benefit all users," said Fleischer, "by providing everyone with a unified opt-out process regardless of location provider."

Author: Cyrus Farivar
Editor: Zulfikar Abbany