New paper on Wi-Fi positioning systems

Regular readers will have come across (or participated in shaping) some of my work over the last year as I looked at the different ways that device identity and personal identity collide in mobile location technology.

In the early days following Google&#39s Street View WiFi snooping escapades, I became increasingly frustrated that public and official attention centered on Google&#39s apparently accidental collection of unencrypted network traffic when there was a much worse problem staring us in the face.

Unfortunately the deeper problem was also immensely harder to grasp since it required both a technical knowledge of networked devices and a willingness to consider totally unpredicted ways of using (or misusing) information.

As became clear from a number of the conversations with other bloggers, even many highly technical people didn&#39t understand some pretty basic things – like the fact that personal device identifiers travel in the clear on encrypted WiFi networks… Nor was it natural for many in our community to think things through from the perspective of privacy threat analysis.

This got me to look at the issues even more closely, and I summarized my thinking at PII 2010 in Seattle.

A few months ago I ran into Dr. Ann Cavoukian, the Privacy Commissioner of Ontario, who was working on the same issues.  We decided to collaborate on a very in-depth look at both the technology and policy implications, aiming to produce a document that could be understood by those in the policy community and still serve as a call to the technical community to deal appropriately with the identity issues, seeking what Ann calls “win-win” solutions that favor both privacy and innovation.

Ann&#39s team deserves all the credit for the thorough literature research and clear exposition.  Ann expertly describes the policy issues and urges us as technologists to adopt Privacy By Design principles for our work. I appreciate having had the opportunity to collaborate with such an innovative group.  Their efforts give me confidence that even difficult technical issues with social implications can be debated and decided by the people they affect.

Please read WiFi Positioning Systems: Beware of Unintended Consequences and let us know what you think – I invite you to comment (or tweet or email me) on the technical, policy and privacy-by-design aspects of the paper.

Android OEMs will need to use Google Location Service

Over at Daring Fireball, John Gruber tells us about Google&#39s approach to controlling content on Android, quoting a brief by Skyhook Wireless in the “complaint and jury demand” they filed against Google recently.

John discusses a couple of aspects of the filing, which he describes as “not long, and… written in pretty straightforward plain language, regarding Google’s control over which devices have access to the Android Market”.   In particular he calls our attention to the way Google is tying Android to it&#39s location service – the one made famous during the StreetView WiFi scandal:

23. On information and belief, Google has notified OEMs that they will need to use Google Location Service, either as a condition of the Android OS-OEM contract or as a condition of the Google Apps contract between Google and each OEM. Though Google claims the Android OS is open source, by requiring OEMs to use Google Location Service, an application that is inextricably bundled with the OS level framework, Google is effectively creating a closed system with respect to location positioning. Google’s manipulation suggests that the true purpose of Android is, or has become, to ensure that “no industry player can restrict or control the innovations of any other”, unless it is Google.

He bookends this with an ironic quote from Vic Gundotra, Google&#39s Vice-President for Engineering:

If you believe in openness, if you believe in choice, if you believe in innovation from everyone, then welcome to Android.

If Google is actually forcing OEMs to hook their users into its world-wide location database it adds one more sinister note to the dark architecture of StreetView location services.

[Thanks to Cameron Westland for the heads up]

Non-Personal Information – like where you live?

Last week I gave a presentation at PII 2010 in Seattle where I tried to summarize what I had learned from my recent work on WiFi location services and identity.  During the question period  an audience member asked me to return to the slide where I recounted how I had first encountered Apple&#39s new location tracking policy:

 

My questioner was clearly a bit irritated with me,  Didn&#39t I realize that the “unique device identifier” was just a GUID – a purely random number?  It wasn&#39t a MAC address.  It was not personally identifying.

The question really perplexed me, since I had just shown a slide demonstrating how if you go to this well-known web site (for example) and enter a location you find out who lives there (I used myself as an example, and by the way, “whitepages” releases this information even though I have had an unlisted number…).

I pointed out the obvious:  if Apple releases your location and a GUID to a third party on multiple occasions, one location will soon stand out as being your residence… Then presto, if the third pary looks up the address in a “Reverse Address” search engine, the “random” GUID identifies you personally forever more.  The notion that location information tied to random identifiers is not personally identifiable information is total hogwash.

My questioner then asked, “Is your problem that Apple&#39s privacy policy is so clear?  Do you prefer companies who don&#39t publish a privacy policy at all, but rather just take your information without telling you?”  A chorus of groans seemed to answer his question to everyone&#39s satisfaction.  But I personally found the question thought provoking.  I assume corporations publish privacy policies – even those as duplicitous as Apple&#39s – because they have to.  I need to learn more about why. 

[Meanwhile, if you&#39re wondering how I could possibly post my own residential address on my blog, it turns out I&#39ve moved and it is no longer my address.  Beyond that, the initial “A” in the listing above has nothing to do with my real name – it&#39s just a mechanism I use to track who has given out my personal information.]

 

Trusting Mobile Technology

Jacques Bus recently shared a communication he has circulated about the mobile technology issues I&#39ve been exploring.  To European readers he will need no introduction:  as Head of Unit for the European Commission&#39s Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) Research Programme he oversaw and gave consistency to the programs shaping Europe&#39s ICT research investment.  Thoroughly expert and equally committed to results, Jacques’ influence on ICT policy thinking is clearly visible in Europe.   Jacques is now an independent consultant on ICT issues.

On June 20, Kim Cameron [KC] posted a piece on this blog titled: Harvesting phone and laptop fingerprints for its database – Google says the user’s device sends a request to its location server with a list of all MAC addresses currently visible to it. Does that include yours?

It was the start of a series of communications that reads like a thriller. Unfortunately the victim is not imaginary, but it is me and you.

He started with an example of someone attending a conference while subscribed to a geo-location service. “I [KC] argued that the subscriber’s cell phone would pick up all the MAC addresses (which serve as digital fingerprints) of nearby phones and laptops and send them in to the centralized database service, which would look them up and potentially use the harvested addresses to further increase its knowledge of people’s behavior – for example, generating a list of those attending the conference.”

He then explained how Google says its location database works, showing that “certainly the MAC addresses of all nearby phones and laptops are sent in to the geo-location server – not simply the MAC addresses of wireless access points that are broadcasting SSIDs.”

His first post was followed by others, including reference to an excellent piece of Niraj Chokshi in The Atlantic and demonstrating that Google&#39s messages in its application descriptions are, to say the least, not in line with their PR messages to Chokshi.

On 2 July a discussion of Apple iTunes follows in KC&#39s post: Update to iTunes comes with privacy fibs with as main message: As the personal phone evolves it will become increasingly obvious that groups within some of our best tech companies have built businesses based on consciously crafted privacy fibs.

The new iTunes policy says: By using this software in connection with an iTunes Store account, you agree to the latest iTunes Store Terms of Service, which you may access and review from the home page of the iTunes Store. So iTunes says: Our privacy policy is that you need to read another privacy policy. This other policy states:

We also collect non-personal information – data in a form that does not permit direct association with any specific individual. We may collect, use, transfer, and disclose non-personal information for any purpose. The following are some examples of non-personal information that we collect and how we may use it:

  • We may collect information such as occupation, language, zip code, area code, unique device identifier, location, and the time zone where an Apple product is used so that we can better understand customer behavior and improve our products, services, and advertising.

I think KC rightly asks the question: What does downloading a song have to do with giving away your location???

Clearly Apple would call its unique device identifier – and its location – ”non-personal data”. However, personal data means in Europe any information relating to an identified or identifiable natural person. Even Google CEO Eric Schmidt would under this EU definition supposedly disagree with Apple, given his statement in a recent speech quoted by KC: Google is making the Android phone, we have the Kindle, of course, and we have the iPad. Each of these form factors with the tablet represent in many ways your future….: they’re personal. They’re personal in a really fundamental way. They know who you are. So imagine that the next version of a news reader will not only know who you are, but it’ll know what you’ve read…and it’ll be more interactive. And it’ll have more video. And it’ll be more real-time. Because of this principle of “now.”.

We could go on with the post of 3 July: The current abuse of personal device identifiers by Google and Apple is at least as significant as the problems I discussed long ago with Passport. He is referring to a story by Todd Bishop at TechFlash – here I refer readers to the original thriller rather than trying to summarize it for them.

What is absolutely clear from the above is how dependent we all are on mobile technology. It is also clear that to enjoy the personal and location services we request one needs to combine data on the person and his location. However, I am convinced that in the complex society we live in, we will eventually only accept services and infrastructure if we can trust them to work as we expect, including the handling of our personal data. But trust can only be given if the services and infrastructure is trustworthy. O&#39Hara and Hall describe trust on the Web very well, based on fundamental principles. They decompose trust in local trust (personal experience through high-bandwidth interactions) and global trust (outsourcing our trust decisions to trusted institutions, like accepted roles through training, witnessing, or certification). Reputation is usually a mix of this.

For trust to be built up the transparency and accountability of the data collectors and processors is essential. As local trust is particularly difficult in global transactions over the Web, we need stronger global trust through a-priori assurances on compliance with legal obligations on privacy protection, transparency, auditing, and effective law enforcement and redress. These are basic principles on which our free and developed societies are built, and which are necessary to guarantee creativity, social stability, economic activity and growth.

One can conclude from KCs posts that not much of these essential elements are represented in the current mobile world.

I agree that the legal solutions he proposes are small steps in the right direction and should be pursued. However, essential action at the level of the legislators is urgently needed. Data Protection authorities in Europe are well aware of that as is demonstrated in The Future of Privacy. Unfortunately these solutions are slow to implement, whilst commercial developments are very fast.

Technology solutions, like developing WiFi protocols that appropriately randomize MAC addresses and also protect other personal data, are also needed urgently to enable develop trustworthy solutions that are competitive and methods should be sought to standardize such results quickly.

However, the gigantic global centralization of data collection and the possibilities of massive correlation is scaring and may make DP Commissioners, even in group in Europe, look helpless. The data is already out there and usable.

What I wonder: is all this data available for law enforcers under warrant and accepted as legal proof in court? And if not, how can it be possible that private companies can collect it? Don&#39t we need some large legal test cases?

And let’s not forget one thing: any government action must be as global as possible given the broad international presence of the most important companies in this field, hence the proposed standards of the joint international DP authorities in their Madrid Declaration.

Smart questions and conclusions.

 

“Microsoft Accuses Apple, Google of Attempted Privacy Murder”

Ms. Smith at Network World made it to the home page of digg.com yesterday when she reported on my concerns about the collection and release of information related to people&#39s movements and location. 

I want to set the record straight about one thing: the headline.  It&#39s not that I object to the term “attempted privacy murder” – it pretty much sums things up. The issue is just that I speak as Kim Cameron – a person, not a corporation.  I&#39m not in marketing or public releations – I&#39m a technologist who has come to understand that we must  all work together to ensure people are able to trust their digital environment.  The ideas I present here are the same ones I apply liberally in my day job, but this is a personal blog.

Ms. Smith is as precise as she is concise:

A Microsoft identity guru bit Apple and smacked Google over mobile privacy policies. Once upon a time, before working for Microsoft, this same man took MS to task for breaking the Laws of Identity.

Kim Cameron, Microsoft&#39s Chief Identity Architect in the Identity and Security Division, said of Apple, “If privacy isn’t dead, Apple is now amongst those trying to bury it alive.”

What prompted this was when Cameron visited the Apple App store to download a new iPhone application. When he discovered Apple had updated its privacy policy, he read all 45 pages on his iPhone. Page 37 lets Apple users know:

Collection and Use of Non-Personal Information

We also collect non-personal information – data in a form that does not permit direct association with any specific individual. We may collect, use, transfer, and disclose non-personal information for any purpose. The following are some examples of non-personal information that we collect and how we may use it:

· We may collect information such as occupation, language, zip code, area code, unique device identifier, location, and the time zone where an Apple product is used so that we can better understand customer behavior and improve our products, services, and advertising.

The MS identity guru put the smack down not only on Apple, but also on Google, writing in his blog, “Maintaining that a personal device fingerprint has ‘no direct association with any specific individual’ is unbelievably specious in 2010 – and even more ludicrous than it used to be now that Google and others have collected the information to build giant centralized databases linking phone MAC addresses to house addresses. And – big surprise – my iPhone, at least, came bundled with Google’s location service.”

MAC in this case refers to Media Access Control addresses associated with specific devices and one of the types that Google collected. Google admits to collecting MAC addresses of WiFi routers, but denies snagging MAC addresses of laptops or phones. Google is under mass investigation for its WiFi blunder.

Apple&#39s new policy is also under fire from two Congressmen who gave Apple until July 12th to respond. Reps. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Joe Barton (R-Texas) sent a letter to Apple CEO Steve Jobs asking for answers about Apple gathering location information on its customers.

As far as Cameron goes, Microsoft&#39s Chief Identity Architect seems to call out anyone who violates privacy. That includes Microsoft. According to Wikipedia&#39s article on Microsoft Passport:

“A prominent critic was Kim Cameron, the author of the Laws of Identity, who questioned Microsoft Passport in its violations of those laws. He has since become Microsoft&#39s Chief Identity Architect and helped address those violations in the design of the Windows Live ID identity meta-system. As a consequence, Windows Live ID is not positioned as the single sign-on service for all web commerce, but as one choice of many among identity systems.”

Cameron seems to believe location based identifiers and these changes of privacy policies may open the eyes of some people to the, “new world-wide databases linking device identifiers and home addresses.”

 

Microsoft identity guru questions Apple, Google on mobile privacy

Todd Bishop at TechFlash published a comprehensive story this week on device fingerprints and location services: 

Kim Cameron is an expert in digital identity and privacy, so when his iPhone recently prompted him to read and accept Apple&#39s revised terms and conditions before downloading a new app, he was perhaps more inclined than the rest of us to read the entire privacy policy — all 45 pages of tiny text on his mobile screen.

It&#39s important to note that apart from writing his own blog on identity issues — where he told this story — Cameron is Microsoft&#39s chief identity architect and one of its distinguished engineers. So he&#39s not a disinterested industry observer in the broader sense. But he does have extensive expertise.

And he is publicly acknowledging his use of an iPhone, after all, which should earn him at least a few points for neutrality…

At this point I&#39ll butt in and editorialize a little.  I&#39d like to amplify on Todd&#39s point for the benefit of readers who don&#39t know me very well:  I&#39m not critical of Street View WiFi because I am anti-Google.  I&#39m not against anyone who does good technology.  My critique stems from my work as a computer scientist specializing in identity, not as a person playing a role in a particular company.  In short, Google&#39s Street View WiFi is bad technology, and if the company persists in it, it will be one of the identity catastrophes of our time.

When I figured out the Laws of Identity and understood that Microsoft had broken them, I was just as hard on Microsoft as I am on Google today.  In fact, someone recently pointed out the following reference in Wikipedia&#39s article on Microsoft&#39s Passport:

“A prominent critic was Kim Cameron, the author of the Laws of Identity, who questioned Microsoft Passport in its violations of those laws. He has since become Microsoft&#39s Chief Identity Architect and helped address those violations in the design of the Windows Live ID identity meta-system. As a consequence, Windows Live ID is not positioned as the single sign-on service for all web commerce, but as one choice of many among identity systems.”

I hope this has earned me some right to comment on the current abuse of personal device identifiers by Google and Apple – which, if their FAQs and privacy policies represent what is actually going on, is at least as significant as the problems I discussed long ago with Passport.  

But back to Todd: 

At any rate, as Cameron explained on his IdentityBlog over the weekend, his epic mobile reading adventure uncovered something troubling on Page 37 of Apple&#39s revised privacy policy, under the heading of “Collection and Use of Non-Personal Information.” Here&#39s an excerpt from Apple&#39s policy, Cameron&#39s emphasis in bold.

We also collect non-personal information — data in a form that does not permit direct association with any specific individual. We may collect, use, transfer, and disclose non-personal information for any purpose. The following are some examples of non-personal information that we collect and how we may use it:

We may collect information such as occupation, language, zip code, area code, unique device identifier, location, and the time zone where an Apple product is used so that we can better understand customer behavior and improve our products, services, and advertising.

Here&#39s what Cameron had to say about that.

Maintaining that a personal device fingerprint has “no direct association with any specific individual” is unbelievably specious in 2010 — and even more ludicrous than it used to be now that Google and others have collected the information to build giant centralized databases linking phone MAC addresses to house addresses. And — big surprise — my iPhone, at least, came bundled with Google’s location service.

The irony here is a bit fantastic. I was, after all, using an “iPhone”. I assume Apple’s lawyers are aware there is an ‘I’ in the word “iPhone”. We’re not talking here about a piece of shared communal property that might be picked up by anyone in the village. An iPhone is carried around by its owner. If a link is established between the owner’s natural identity and the device (as Google’s databases have done), its “unique device identifier” becomes a digital fingerprint for the person using it.

MAC in this context refers to Media Access Control addresses associated with specific devices, one type of data that Google has acknowledged collecting. However, in a response to an Atlantic magazine piece that quoted an earlier Cameron blog post, Google says that it hasn&#39t gone as far Cameron is suggesting. The company says it has collected only the MAC addresses of WiFi routers, not of laptops or phones.

The distinction is important because it speaks to how far the companies could go in linking together a specific device with a specific person in a particular location.

Google&#39s FAQ, for the record, says its location-based services (such as Google Maps for Mobile) figure out the location of a device when that device “sends a request to the Google location server with a list of MAC addresses which are currently visible to the device” — not distinguishing between MAC addresses from phones or computers and those from wireless routers.

Here&#39s what Cameron said when I asked about that topic via email.

I have suggested that the author ask Google if it will therefore correct its FAQ, since the portion of the FAQ on “how the system works” continues to say it behaves in the way I described. If Google does correct its FAQ then it will be likely that data protection authorities ask Google to demonstrate that its shipped software behaving in the way described in the correction.

I would of course feel better about things if Google’s FAQ is changed to say something like, “The user’s device sends a request to the Google location server with the list of MAC addresses found in Beacon Frames announcing a Network Access Point SSID and excluding the addresses of end user devices.”

However, I would still worry that the commercially irresistible feature of tracking end user devices could be turned on at any second by Google or others. Is that to be prevented? If so, how?

So a statement from Google that its FAQ was incorrect would be good news – and I would welcome it – but not the end of the problem for the industry as a whole.

The privacy statement for Microsoft&#39s Location Finder service, for the record, is more specific in saying that the service uses MAC addresses from wireless access points, making no reference to those from individual devices.

In any event, the basic question about Apple is whether its new privacy policy is ultimately correct in saying that the company is only collecting “data in a form that does not permit direct association with any specific individual” — if that data includes such information as the phone&#39s unique device identifier and location.

Cameron isn&#39t the only one raising questions.

The Consumerist blog picked up on this issue last week, citing a separate portion of the revised privacy policy that says Apple and its partners and licensees “may collect, use, and share precise location data, including the real-time geographic location of your Apple computer or device.” The policy adds, “This location data is collected anonymously in a form that does not personally identify you and is used by Apple and our partners and licensees to provide and improve location-based products and services.”

The Consumerist called the language “creepy” and said it didn&#39t find Apple&#39s assurances about the lack of personal identification particularly comforting. Cameron, in a follow-up post, agreed with that sentiment.

SF Weekly and the Hypebot music technology blog also noted the new location-tracking language, and the fact that users must agree to the new privacy policy if they want to use the service.

“Though Apple states that the data is anonymous and does not enable the personal identification of users, they are left with little choice but to agree if they want to continue buying from iTunes,” Hypebot wrote.

We&#39ve left messages with Apple and Google to comment on any of this, and we&#39ll update this post depending on the response.

And for the record, there is an option to email the Apple privacy policy from the phone to a computer for reading, and it&#39s also available here, so you don&#39t necessarily need to duplicate Cameron&#39s feat by reading it all on your phone.

Update to iTunes comes with privacy fibs

A few days ago I reported that from now on, to get into the iPhone App store you must allow Apple to share your phone or tablet device fingerprints and detailed, dynamic location information with anyone it pleases.  No chance to vet the purposes for which your location data is being used.  No way to know who it is going to. 

As incredible as it sounds in 2010, no user control.  Not even  transparency.  Just one thing is for sure.  If privacy isn&#39t dead, Apple is now amongst those trying to bury it alive.

Then today, just when I thought Apple had gone as far as it could go in this particular direction, a new version of iTunes wanted to install itself on my laptop.  What do you know?  It had a new privacy policy too… 

The new iTunes policy was snappier than the iPhone policy – it came to the point – sort of – in the 5th paragraph rather than the 37th page!

5. iTunes Store and other Services.  This software enables access to Apple&#39s iTunes Store which offers downloads of music for sale and other services (collectively and individually, “Services”). Use of the Services requires Internet access and use of certain Services requires you to accept additional terms of service which will be presented to you before you can use such Services.

By using this software in connection with an iTunes Store account, you agree to the latest iTunes Store Terms of Service, which you may access and review from the home page of the iTunes Store.

I shuddered.  Mind bend!  A level of indirection in a privacy policy! 

Imagine:  “Our privacy policy is that you need to read another privacy policy.”  This makes it much more likely that people will figure out what they&#39re getting into, don&#39t you think?  Besides, it is a really novel application of the proposition that all problems of computer science can be solved through a level of indirection!  Bravo!

But then – the coup de grace.  The privacy policy to which Apple redirects you is… are you ready… the same one we came across a few days ago at the App Store!  So once again you need to get to the equivalent of page 37 of 45 to read:

Collection and Use of Non-Personal Information

We also collect non-personal information – data in a form that does not permit direct association with any specific individual. We may collect, use, transfer, and disclose non-personal information for any purpose. The following are some examples of non-personal information that we collect and how we may use it:

  • We may collect information such as occupation, language, zip code, area code, unique device identifier, location, and the time zone where an Apple product is used so that we can better understand customer behavior and improve our products, services, and advertising.

The mind bogggggles.  What does downloading a song have to do with giving away your location???

Some may remember my surprise that the Lords of The iPhone would call its unique device identifier – and its location – “non-personal data”.  Non-personal implies there is no strong relationship to the person who is using it.  I wrote:

The irony here is a bit fantastic.  I was, after all, using an “iPhone”.   I assume Apple’s lawyers are aware there is an ”I” in the word “iPhone”.  We’re not talking here about a piece of shared communal property that might be picked up by anyone in the village.  An iPhone is carried around by its owner.  If a link is established between the owner’s natural identity and the device (as Google’s databases have done), its “unique device identifier” becomes a digital fingerprint for the person using it. 

Anybody who thinks about identity understands that a “personal device” is associated with (even an extension of) the person who uses it.  But most people – including technical people – don&#39t give these matters the slightest thought.  

A parade of tech companies have figured out how to use peoples’ ignorance about digital identity to get away with practices letting them track what we do from morning to night in the physical world.  But of course, they never track people, they only track their personal devices!  Those unruly devices really have a mind of their own – you definitely need central databases to keep tabs on where they&#39re going.

I was therefore really happy to read some of  Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s recent speech to the American Society of News Editors.  Talking about mobility he made a number of statements that begin to explain the ABCs of what mobile devices are about:

Google is making the Android phone, we have the Kindle, of course, and we have the iPad. Each of these form factors with the tablet represent in many ways your future….: they’re personal. They’re personal in a really fundamental way. They know who you are. So imagine that the next version of a news reader will not only know who you are, but it’ll know what you’ve read…and it’ll be more interactive. And it’ll have more video. And it’ll be more real-time. Because of this principle of “now.”

It is good to see Eric sharing the actual truth about personal devices with a group of key influencers.  This stands in stark contrast to the silly fibs about phones and laptops being non-personal that are being handed down in the iTunes Store, the iPhone App Store, and in the “Refresher FAQ” Fantasyland Google created in response to its Street View WiFi shenanigans. 

As the personal phone evolves it will become increasingly obvious  that groups within some of our best tech companies have built businesses based on consciously crafted privacy fibs.  I&#39m amazed at the short-sightedness involved:  folks, we&#39re talking about a “BP moment”.  History teaches us that “There is no vice that doth so cover a man with shame as to be found false and perfidious.” [Francis Bacon]  And statements that your personal device doesn&#39t identify you and that location is not personal information are precisely “false and perfidious.”

 

What Could Google Do With the Data It&#39s Collected?

Niraj Chokshi has published a piece in The Atlantic where he grapples admirably with the issues related to Google&#39s collection and use of device fingerprints (technically called MAC Addresses).  It is important and encouraging to have journalists like Niraj taking the time to explore these complex issues.  

But I have to say that such an exploration is really hard right now. 

Whether on purpose or by accident, the Google PR machine is still handing out contradictory messages.  In particular, the description in Google&#39s Refresher FAQ titled “How does this location database work?” is currently completely different from (read: the opposite of) what its public relations people are telling journalists like Nitaj.  I think reestablishing credibility around location services requires the messages to be made consistent so they can be verified by data protection authorities.

Here are some excerpts from the piece – annotated with some comments by me.  [Read the whole article here.] 

The Wi-Fi data Google collected in over 30 countries could be more revealing than initially thought…

Google&#39s CEO Eric Schmidt has said the information was hardly useful and that the company had done nothing with it. The search giant has also been ordered (or sought) to destroy the data. According to their own blog post, Google logged three things from wireless networks within range of their vans: snippets of unencrypted data; the names of available wireless networks; and a unique identifier associated with devices like wireless routers. Google blamed the collection on a rogue bit of code that was never removed after it had been inserted by an engineer during testing.

[The statement about rogue code is an example of the PR ambiguity Nitaj and other journalists must deal with.  Google blogs don&#39t actually blame the collection of unique identifiers on rogue code, although they seem crafted to leave people with that impression.  Spokesmen only blame rogue code for the collection of unencrypted data content (e.g. email messages.) – Kim]

Each of the three types of data Google recorded has its uses, but it&#39s that last one, the unique identifier, that could be valuable to a company of Google&#39s scale. That ID is known as the media access control (MAC) address and it is included — unencrypted, by design — in any transfer, blogger Joe Mansfield explains.

Google says it only downloaded unencrypted data packets, which could contain information about the sites users visited. Those packets also include the MAC address of both the sending and receiving devices — the laptop and router, for example.

[Another contradiction: Google PR says it “only” collected unencrypted data packets, but Google&#39s GStumbler report  says its cars did collect and record the MAC addresses from encrypted data frames as well. – Kim]

A company as large as Google could develop profiles of individuals based on their mobile device MAC addresses, argues Mansfield:

Get enough data points over a couple of months or years and the database will certainly contain many repeat detections of mobile MAC addresses at many different locations, with a decent chance of being able to identify a home or work address to go with it.

Now, to be fair, we don&#39t know whether Google actually scrubbed the packets it collected for MAC addresses and the company&#39s statements indicate they did not. [Yet the GStumbler report says ALL MAC addresses were recorded – Kim].  The search giant even said it “cannot identify an individual from the location data Google collects via its Street View cars.”  Add a step, however, and Google could deduce an individual from the location data, argues Avi Bar-Zeev, an employee of Microsoft, a Google competitor.

[Google] could (opposite of cannot) yield your identity if you&#39ve used Google&#39s services or otherwise revealed it to them in association with your IP address (which would be the public IP of your router in most cases, visible to web servers during routine queries like HTTP GET). If Google remembered that connection (and why not, if they remember your search history?), they now have your likely home address and identity at the same time. Whether they actually do this or not is unclear to me, since they say they can&#39t do A but surely they could do B if they wanted to.

Theoretically, Google could use the MAC address for a mobile device — an iPod, a laptop, etc. — to build profiles of an individual&#39s activity. (It&#39s unclear whether they did and Google has indicated that they have not.) But there&#39s also value in the MAC addresses of wireless routers.

Once a router has been associated with a real-world location, it becomes useful as a reference point. The Boston company Skyhook Wireless, for example, has long maintained a database of MAC addresses, collected in a (slightly) less-intrusive way. Skyhook is the primary wireless positioning system used by Apple&#39s iPhone and iPod Touch. (See a map of their U.S. coverage here.) When your iPod Touch wants to retrieve the current location, it shares the MAC addresses of nearby routers with Skyhook which pings its database to figure out where you are.

Google Latitude, which lets users share their current location, has at least 3 million active users and works in a similar way. When a user decides to share his location with any Google service on a non-GPS device, he sends all visible MAC addresses in the vicinity to the search giant, according to the company&#39s own description of how its location services works.

[Update: Google&#39s own “refresher FAQ” states that a user of its geo-location services, such as Latitude, sends all MAC addresses “currently visible to the device” to Google, but a spokesman said the service only collects the MAC addresses of routers. That FAQ statment is the basis of the following argument.]

This is disturbing, argues blogger Kim Cameron (also a Microsoft employee), because it could mean the company is getting not only router addresses, but also the MAC addresses of devices such as laptops and iPods. If you are sitting next to a Google Latitude user who shares his location, Google could know the address and location of your device even though you didn&#39t opt in. That could then be compared with all other logged instances of your MAC address to develop a profile of where the device is and has been.

Google denies using the information it collected and, if the company is telling the truth, then only data from unencrypted networks was intercepted anyway, so you have less to worry about if your home wireless network is password-protected. (It&#39s still not totally clear whether only router MAC addresses were collected. Google said it collected the information for devices “like a WiFi router.”) Whether it did or did not collect or use this information isn&#39t clear, but Google, like many of its competitors, has a strong incentive to get this kind of location data.

[Again, and I really do feel for Niraj, the PR leaves the impression that if you have passwords and encryption turned on you have nothing to worry about, but Googles’ GStumbler report says that passwords and encryption did not prevent the collection of the MAC addresses of phones and laptops from homes and businesses. – Kim]

I really tuned in to these contradictory messages when a reader first alerted me to Niraj&#39s article.   It looked like this:

My comments earned their strike-throughs when a Google spokesman assured the Atlantic “the Service only collects the MAC addresses of routers.”  I pointed out that my statement was actually based on Google&#39s own FAQ, and it was their FAQ (“How does this location database work?”) – rather than my comments – that deserved to be corrected.  After verifying that this was true, Niraj agreed to remove the strikethrough.

How can anyone be expected to get this story right given the contradictions in what Google says it has done?

In light of this, I would like to see Google issue a revision to its “Refresher FAQ” that currently reads:

The “list of MAC addresses which are currently visible to the device” would include the addresses of nearby phones and laptops.  Since Google PR has assured Niraj that “the service only collects the MAC addresses of routers”, the right thing to do would be to correct the FAQ so it reads:

  • “The user’s device sends a request to the Google location server with the list of MAC addresses found in Beacon Frames announcing a Network Access Point SSID and excluding the addresses of end user devices like WiFi enabled phones and laptops.”

This would at least reassure us that Google has not delivered software with the ability to track non-subscribers and this could be verified by data protection authorities.  We could then limit our concerns to what we need to do to ensure that no such software is ever deployed in the future.

 

The Consumerist says “Apple is Watching”

A reader has pointed me to this article in The Consumerist (“Shoppers bite back”) about Apple&#39s new privacy policy


Schmegga

Apple updated its privacy policy today, with an important, and dare we say creepy new paragraph about location information. If you agree to the changes, (which you must do in order to download anything via the iTunes store) you agree to let Apple collect store and share “precise location data, including the real-time geographic location of your Apple computer or device.”

Apple says that the data is “collected anonymously in a form that does not personally identify you,” but for some reason we don&#39t find this very comforting at all. [Good instinct ! – Kim]. There appears to be no way to opt-out of this data collection without giving up the ability to download apps.

Here&#39s the full text [Emphasis is mine – Kim]:

Location-Based Services

“To provide location-based services on Apple products, Apple and our partners and licensees may collect, use, and share precise location data, including the real-time geographic location of your Apple computer or device. This location data is collected anonymously in a form that does not personally identify you and is used by Apple and our partners and licensees to provide and improve location-based products and services. For example, we may share geographic location with application providers when you opt in to their location services.

Some location-based services offered by Apple, such as the MobileMe “Find My iPhone” feature, require your personal information for the feature to work. “

I wonder how The Consumerist will feel when it figures out how this change ties in to the new world-wide databases linking device identifiers and home addresses?

The consumerist piece is dated June 21, 2010 9:50 PM, and seems to confirm that the change in policy has only been made public since Google&#39s WiFi shenanigans have been discovered by data protection authorities… The point about “no opt out” is very important too.

Harvesting phone and laptop fingerprints for its database

In The core of the matter at hand I gave the example of someone attending a conference while subscribed to a geo-location service.  I argued that the subscriber&#39s cell phone would pick up all the MAC addresses (which serve as digital fingerprints) of nearby phones and laptops and send them in to the centralized database service, which would look them up and potentially use the harvested addresses to further increase its knowledge of people&#39s behavior – for example, generating a list of those attending the conference.

A reader wrote to express disbelief that the MAC addresses of non-subscribers would be collected by a company like Google.  So I close this series on WiFi device identifiers with this quote from what Google calls its “refresher FAQ” (emphasis in the quote below is mine):  

How does this location database work?

Google location based services using WiFi access point data work as follows:

  • The user’s device sends a request to the Google location server with a list of MAC addresses which are currently visible to the device;
  • The location server compares the MAC addresses seen by the user’s device with its list of known MAC addresses, and identifies associated geocoded locations (i.e. latitude / longitude);
  • The location server then uses the geocoded locations associated with visible MAC address to triangulate the approximate location of the user;
  • and this approximate location is geocoded and sent back to the user’s device.

So certainly the MAC addresses of all nearby phones and laptops are sent in to the geo-location server – not simply the MAC addresses of wireless access points that are broadcasting SSIDs.  And this is significant from a technical point of view.

Why not edit out the MAC addresses you don&#39t need prior to transmission, reducing transmission size, cost and the amount of work that the central database server must do? Clearly, it was considered useful to collect all the phone fingerprints – including those of non-subscribers.  Of course Google&#39s  WiFi cars also collect the same fingerprints – while driving past peoples’ homes.  So it is clearly possible for their system to match the fingerprints of non-subscribers to their home locations, and thus to their natural identities. 

Is this matching of non-subscribers being done today?  I have no idea.  But Google has put in place all the machinery to do it and pays a premium to operate its geolocation service so as to gather this information.  Further, if allowed to mature, the market for the extra intelligence collected about our behaviors will be immense.

So there is nothing unlikely about the scenario I describe.   I have now examined all the issues I wanted to bring to light and I&#39ll move on to other matters for a while.