The Privacy Commission on Google

Google and Facebook have been making the news in Australia quite a bit in recent days, particularly in regards to concerns regarding the privacy of personal information. Only yesterday, the Minister for Restricting Communications, Stephen Conroy, launched a scathing attack on Facebook with respect to their recent changes in privacy settings, most likely in attempt to take some heat off of himself in regards to his flawed internet filtering policy.

Google has been questioned in regards to the collection of publicly – (note the use of the term “publicly”) – accessible Wi-Fi information while collecting imagery for an update of its StreetView service, an act which Google themselves have already openly stated was an ”inadvertent screw up”.

The collection of such information – even though it has been questioned – could very conceivably be useful information for a service such as StreetView, particularly when accessed on location-aware devices such as GPS-enabled smartphones. If a certain Wi-Fi access point is detected at a certain location, and every access point is globally and uniquely identifiable via its MAC address, you can be reasonably confident that if you detect it again – (eg: by a user with a smartphone walking down your street) – you or they are actually in the same exact location, within a few metres. This information is therefore potentially very valuable for navigational purposes.

That’s the theory at least, and Google has obviously agreed that many people find the collection of this information is a sensitive issue – which is a position every person has the right to hold, if they so choose. A position Google appears to respect.

Obviously GPS alone is the most accurate public method for geo-location services, but not every smartphone or similar device comes equipped with GPS capabilities, so these devices could – (and would) – benefit from the triangulation of Wi-Fi signals for the determination of their location.

But I digress.

The Australian senate is currently engrossed in a round of senate estimates sessions, and these current online privacy concerns are receiving attention from these senate committees. Some interesting points were raised yesterday by Green senator Scott Ludlam, particularly in the case of Google collecting information for StreetView.

I read with particular interest a paragraph near the bottom:

During our earlier discussions prior to the rollout of Street View, as the commissioner has mentioned, we did get an undertaking and Street View did move to pixellate such items as people’s faces, number plates and cars. They also put in place procedures whereby, if someone was particularly concerned that there was some identifying feature say of their house or something like that, they could approach Google and have that taken down.

“Identifying feature say of their house” hmm? I would have thought that the most identifying “feature” of a house pictured on StreetView – (remembering that StreetView is ultimately part of the mapping application “Google Maps”) – is actually its location?

Now, presuming that every home owner in Australia is almost certainly a registered voter; that they are more than likely to be a registered voter at the address of that house; and that the electoral roll is actually public information – (anyone can go into an electoral commission office and look it up) – how is the electoral roll any different from location information in Google StreetView?

Actually – it is different. Quite different.

I can easily find the address of just about any person over the age of eighteen in Australia, look up their address in a street directory, jump in my car, and drive there. Or I could look up their address on Google Maps, jump in my car, drive there, and use the StreetView feature of Google Maps on my iPhone to see an image of the house so I can be confident that I was looking at the right house.

Will people be able to request that their locations are “removed” or “blanked out” of the next edition of the Melways? That would be preposterous, in any rational sense.

The registered street address of a person is public information, and their house can then be located against their name as a reference. The broadcasted MAC address of a Wi-Fi access point is also public, but does not necessarily identify the owner of that access point.

See the difference? Who is giving out more personally identifiable, location-based information, Google or the government?