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In the wake of last year's data collection controversy, Google said Tuesday that it will allow users to opt out of having their Wi-Fi location data tracked.
In order to provide location-based services, like Google Maps on mobile devices, data can be collected in several ways, including GPS, cell towers, and publicly available Wi-Fi networks. Given that GPS is not always available and cell tower data is not always accurate, Google said it relies primarily on Wi-Fi data.
"By using signals from access points, smartphones are able to fix their general location quickly without using too much power," Peter Fleischer, Google's global privacy counsel, wrote in a blog post.
Last year, however, Google got into some hot water when it admitted that equipment attached to its Street View cars had inadvertently collected personal information that consumers sent over unencrypted wireless networks. Initially, Google said it "collected only fragments of payload data," but it later said it collected entire e-mails, URLs, and passwords.
The revelation prompted inquiries from privacy officials all over the world. In the U.S., the Federal Trade Commission closed its investigation into the matter in October 2010, though in June, a California district judge refused to dismiss a class-action suit that accused Google of violating wiretap laws with the data collection.
In March, France fined Google $100,000 over the matter; two months earlier, South Korean officials said the Wi-Fi sniffing broke the country's laws. It was those European inquiries that apparently prompted today's shift.
"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," Fleischer wrote. "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. Once opted out, our services will not use that access point to determine users' locations."
The opt-out service will be global, and Fleischer promised to release more detailed information about when and how it will launch later in the fall.
Location tracking also made headlines earlier this year when two researchers published a blog post that said iOS 4+ devices collected a users' location in an unencrypted file known as "consolidated.db." It was no secret that Apple collected that data to serve up location-based services, but the researchers were concerned that this information was stored in an insecure manner, and transferred to a user's PC when they synced their iOS device. A subsequent iOS update fixed the issue, which Apple said was a glitch, while iOS 5 will encrypt the data going forward.
Google got dragged into the controversy, as did Microsoft, but Google said that any location-based data it collects via its Android mobile operating system is anonymous in nature and the majority of that information is deleted after one week.___