Wednesday, April 12, 2006

More on the Dark Side of Muni-WiFi: The Case of San Francisco

From the FierceWiFi e-newsletter:

As details of Google's plans for San Francisco emerge, privacy worries become more concrete. Privacy advocates say that Google's commercial voraciousness reveals a more sinister aspect of its project. Google said it would use its search engine to track users' locations. Google may do it so it can tailor advertisements to individual users based on their location: As users walk down the street while on the phone or are sitting in a coffee shop, Google will send to their PDAs or laptops marketing messages from businesses in the neighborhood in which the users happen to be. If a user happens to be in Union Square, he may see an advertisement for Macy's; if the user uses her laptop near Fisherman's Wharf, she may see an ad for a seafood restaurant (and if users happen to be walking anywhere near AT&T Park, they may see advertising for steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs).

Google said its technology would allow it to track users' whereabouts to within a few hundred feet. The company also said it would retain the data for up to 180 days before deleting it, as part of an effort to "maintain the Google WiFi network and deliver the best possible service." Privacy advocates fear the information could be used by government officials to place users under surveillance. Kurt Opsahl, staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy watchdog group, said, "The greatest concern is that once you have that treasure trove of information, will people start to come looking for it?"

What privacy advocates find especially irksome is Google's requirement that users log on with a Google account before accessing the free WiFi. Signing in would make it possible for the company to track Internet use and location to specific individuals. Fears about information collected and retained by Google are not without foundation. The Justice Department recently tried to make Google divulge the search records of thousands of its users. The government wanted the information so it could give teeth to a law intended to protect children from Internet pornography. Google prevailed in the subsequent court battle, but legal experts say the company could have avoided the problem by not keeping user search records.

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