After Google incident, Wi-Fi data collection goes on

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Skyhook gets maybe five requests per year from people who want their wireless router removed from the database, Shean said. They honor these requests.

With location-aware programs becoming ever more important, the type of wireless data collected by Apple, Skyhook and Google is only going to become more valuable. In fact, until recently, Apple used Skyhook's data, but starting in April 2010, the company started building its own database, presumably because it sees this as a strategic necessity.

Apple did not respond to requests for comment on its wireless collection policies, but it spelled out information about its database of cell tower and Wi-Fi access points in a July 12, 2010, letter to representatives Edward Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, and Joe Barton, a Texas Republican. In the letter, Apple says it stores MAC addresses and signal strength information and links them to GPS coordinates and cell tower information. "Apple does not collect the user-assigned name of the Wi-Fi access point (known as the 'SSID," or service set identifier) or data being transmitted over the Wi-Fi network (known as 'payload data')."

The database is "accessible only by Apple," the letter states.

Made wary by the Google Wi-Fi scandal, privacy advocates are concerned. Part of the problem is that there's so little public awareness of what's going on, said John Simpson, an advocate with Consumer Watchdog, a group that's been highly critical of Google in the past. "If I buy a cell phone, do I expect to be mapping people's Wi-Fi locations for the company that sold me the phone?" he asked. "My answer to that is I'd kind of be taken aback."

"Part of the problem with this technology is that people just don't know what's going on," he added.

Certainly most wireless users do not realize that the location of their routers is being logged into databases, and that at least one of these databases -- Google's -- can be accessed by anyone over the Internet. Whether this becomes a bigger problem for the data collectors will depend on whether more people like Kamkar can come up with unexpected ways to use -- or misuse -- this data.

But is that really a big deal? Nobody is forcing people to use wireless data, but maybe the problem is that people are setting up wireless networks without fully understanding what they're getting into.

Brad Haines, an independent consultant who has spent a lot of time studying wireless security, says that it's amazing that even though wireless technology has been mainstream for nearly a decade, many users are still ignorant of how it works. "Frankly, if you're terrified of this, then why are you using a wireless network?" he asks. "This is public information because you're broadcasting it over an open frequency."

SimpleGeo CEO Matt Galligan agrees that a lot of the wireless fears are overblown. But Galligan, whose company sells developer tools for location-aware applications, says that the people building these technologies need to educate the users. "If somebody really wants to find out anything about you, they can go to a mass mailing marketer and find out about your interests," he said. "Personally, I don't believe that it should be a great concern."

Robert McMillan covers computer security and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Robert on Twitter at @bobmcmillan. Robert's e-mail address is robert_mcmillan@idg.com

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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