Google to offer Wi-Fi opt-out tool

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Internet giant Google will allow the owners of Wi-Fi hotspots to opt out of sharing data that helps pinpoint the locations of smartphones. The move is widely seen as an attempt to appease European officials who have expressed concerns around privacy.

Google uses publicly broadcast data from Wi-Fi access points to quickly figure out where smartphones are located.

The process is designed to provide information such as the mapping of routes and finding out what kind of retailers and attractions may be nearby.

“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,” Google global privacy counsel Peter Fleischer said.

“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 said in a blog post.
Once a company opts out, he added, Google’s “services will not use that access point to determine users’ locations”.

This is not the first time Google has run foul with European authorities around issues of privacy.

Last year, for instance it was forced to apologise after its “Street View” vehicles gathered private wireless data, including emails and passwords, in dozens of countries.

Concerns around privacy saw Israel place a block on Google Street View until August of this year, with street view vehicles only beginning to collect images this week.

As part of its privacy plan, Google blurs images of faces and license plates on Street View. Users also have the option to request additional blurring.

Google initially chose to use the data gathered from wireless hotspots because the alternatives — using a phone’s GPS capability or its proximity to cell towers — are not sufficiently accurate.

Google’s mobile Maps Navigation app makes extensive use of information collected from Wi-Fi hotspots in accurately mapping and planning routes for its users.

Although the opt out service will initially be available only in Europe, Google does have plans to roll it out on a much wider scale.

“We’ll be making this opt-out available globally, and we’ll release more detailed information about it when it’s ready to launch later this autumn,” Fleischer said.

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