Google counters privacy concerns about its WiFi

Google believes in the one-two approach. First, it will begin a phased roll out of a free wireless Internet access service in its home town of Mountain View, California, this summer. Second, while the company is still hammering out details with San Francisco officials for its citywide WiFi service there, it has already began a public relations campaign aiming to assuage the concerns more and more people have about the privacy aspects of the company's San Francisco deployment.

These concerns center on the location-tracking feature of the Google system. The company will give resident of the city on the bay free access to the Internet, but in return it will track every call they make and, using GPS, where they make the call from. Pinpointing the caller's location at the time he or she makes a call, Google will send a stream of advertising to the caller's phone or PDA, advertising business establishments in the immediate vicinity of the caller. Thus, if make a call while walking down Fisherman's Wharf, you will see a list of sea food restaurants on your hand-held's LCD screen; if you happen to make a call while walking in the neighborhood of AT&T Park, you will likely see a list of suppliers of performance-enhancing drugs.

The message Google's been delivering through local media interviews and meetings with local businesses and citizens is that people do not have to worry about their privacy being violated. Chris Sacca, Google's head of special initiatives, admits that the system the company is building in San Francisco will be able to track callers, but not to the pinpoint degree of accuracy many detractors think it will be. Sacca says that Google will gain a level of geographical certainty about a WiFi network user, but it is going to be within a few football fields of accuracy, which is the range of any one single WiFi access point. He added that Google will have little more than a user's e-mail address to match to their location, which reveals very little personal detail, he said.

Google will, however, take a look at using more accurate location-based technology, wherever it might be found. This more accurate technology would help Google serve up more locally targeted ads, which businesses are calling for, and to provide new, more locally based content to Google consumers. What if law enforcement ask Google to help track an individual making calls over the network? As with any request from law enforcement, Sacca said Google would only respond to valid and appropriate requests for user's whereabouts, should police ever ask. "We have some tried and true principles of how we do business," Sacca said. "We have a deep commitment to privacy."

For more on Google's Mountain View roll out
-see Elinor Mills's report
For more on Google's publicity campaign
-see Ben Charny's eWeek report