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WiFi opt-out

September 14, 2011

Google says users worldwide will be able to remove themselves from some company databases. Since a May 2010 privacy gaffe, the company has been under increased pressure from European data protection authorities.

A sign outside a shop advertises a WiFi hotspot
Wireless access points can help locate peopleImage: bilderbox

In response to data protection concerns from various European officials, Google announced on Tuesday that it would allow owners of WiFi routers to opt-out of Google's location-based services.

Google, and other companies that provide similar geo-location services, use wireless Internet routers as a fixed marker to triangulate someone's location. Often, this locating can be performed using less battery power and more quickly than via GPS signals. Google uses the WiFi location information as a way to sell more targeted advertising.

"Even though the wireless access point signals we use in our location services don't identify people, we think we can go further in protecting people's privacy," wrote Peter Fleischer, Google's global privacy counsel, in a company blog post.

"At the request of several European data protection authorities, we are building an opt-out service that will allow an access point owner to opt out from Google's location services," Fleischer continued. "Once opted out, our services will not use that access point to determine users' locations."

Marietje Schaake
Marietje Schaake said she is in favor of Google's new planImage: Apus apus/by/nc/sa

Meanwhile, Johannes Caspar, Hamburg's state data protection chief, who has come down hard on Google in the past, said that his institution "appreciated" the announcement.

"The provision of this opt-out tool shows that Google acknowledges the fact that WiFi geolocation data should be protected as personal data," he wrote in an e-mail sent to Deutsche Welle.

"In the past we have repeatedly insisted upon WiFi geolocation databases being treated as personal data. The solution now offered by Google could take up our concerns. We expect Google to provide a solution that will meet all requirements resulting from the European data protection directive and national laws."

Praise from Internet rights advocates

While location-based services can makes Internet users' lives easier, they can also provide oppressive regimes with the ability to track dissidents, noted Marietje Schaake, a Dutch member of the European Parliament.

"Tracking and location services do not only enhance online services in democratic societies," Schaake wrote in an e-mail sent to Deutsche Welle. "They can easily backfire and endanger human rights defenders. Imagine Internet users in Iran, China and other countries being tracked and traced through location services. The user should be able to opt-out."

Google under legal scrutiny

In May 2010, Google revealed that its Street View vehicles had inadvertently collected errant data over open WiFi networks. The company said this possibly included user names and passwords, financial records and other personal documents and files.

Peter Fleischer
Peter Fleischer wrote in a blog post that more details would be revealed this autumn

Since then, the company has been under legal pressure from government agencies around the world, particularly in Europe, where it has faced investigations from Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, France, and others.

Last year, Google agreed to destroy this data under the supervision of the data protection authorities in Ireland and the United Kingdom, but faced no legal charges.

Ulrich Börger, a privacy lawyer in Hamburg at Latham & Watkins said Google's program is aimed at prevent further legal difficulties.

"It's not them giving-in or being generous, they're just trying to stay out of trouble," Börger told Deutsche Welle. "Europe, and maybe in particular Germany, is always at the forefront of protecting privacy rights. This may well be a result of that."

In the Tuesday blog post, Fleischer added that Google would be making this opt-out available around the world, and wrote that the company would "release more detailed information about it when it's ready to launch later this autumn."

Author: Cyrus Farivar

Editor: Sean Sinico