Google's WiFi collection practices: A tangled web of deception?

Scott Cleland, president and founder of Precursor, spells out a tangled web of deception when it comes to Google's claims earlier this year that it mistakenly collected sensitive information from WiFi access points when gathering information for its Street View location service.

Cleland boldly asserts that the collection of sensitive data--such as email addresses, web sites and passwords--was no mistake at all, but part of a purposeful and widespread Google business plan to enter the mobile location services market and compete with Skyhook Wireless, which has since sued Google for deceptive and unfair trade practices and patent infringement.

Google has since permanently suspended the practice of using drive bys to collect data from WiFi hotspots. When Google Maps Navigation users request a location fix with the "use wireless networks" option checked in their settings, their device sends over a list of all nearby addresses associated with wireless hot spots, which in turn is checked against Google's existing database of those addresses gathered through the Street View project. It appears the company plans to glean the needed information from users' handsets using crowdsourced data to refine its mapping capabilities.

In a piece titled, "Google Wi-Spy Was an Intentional Plan to Beat Skyhook Wireless," Cleland is bold. He said mounting evidence suggests that the Federal Trade Commission dropped its investigation prematurely based on "weak and unaccountable assurances from Google." However, the FCC is currently investigating whether Google violated the Communications Act, and multiple countries are continuing their investigations into privacy violations.

Of course the impetus for collecting WiFi signals around the world is the lucrative advertising market. An advertiser is willing to pay more to target specific users.

"Interestingly, Google's Street View effort was apparently Google's public stalking horse, misdirection and cover story for Google's secret three-year scheme to collect all of everyone's WiFi signals, because mobile-location-services are orders of magnitude more lucrative and monetizable to Google than the Street View application ever could be," Cleland said.

He also charges that Google was trying to play catch-up to Skyhook Wireless, the only entity that has 250 million mapped WiFi access points. In doing so, Google had to get aggressive with its collection of WiFi signals for a given location in order to collect more data than Skyhook.  As such, Cleland said that Google had to have made a conscious engineering decision to collect all WiFi information. It wasn't a simple engineering mistake as Google has stated, Cleland believes.

"Another big reason this was not inadvertent, is that Google had to know what it was collecting, because it had to organize its database to collect the data and put it in the correct field, and it had to design the database capacity to store vastly more data than the data light amount that Skyhook's active/targeted or ping-only approach entailed," Cleland wrote.

Skyhook filed a lawsuit against Google in September contending that Andy Rubin, Google's vice president of engineering, called Motorola Chief Executive Officer Sanjay Jha after the vendor announced a partnership with Skyhook in April. According to Skyhook Rubin added new requirements that made Skyhook in violation of the Android licensing terms despite the fact that Google had previously approved Skyhook's technology on Android phones. Skyhook also claims Rubin insisted all Android phones include both Skyhook and Google's own technology, Google Location Services.

The requirement increases development costs for phone vendors, and in a move to avoid any issues with its popular Android devices, Motorola opted to remove Skyhook's software in favor of Google's, Skyhook said in its lawsuit. Skyhook also claims that another device maker removed its technology, presumably Samsung Electronics, since the company made an announcement with the handset vendor in July.

"Skyhook and Google are competitors in the location positioning space. There was a time when Google tried to compete fairly with Skyhook. But once Google realized its positioning technology was not competitive, it chose other means to undermine Skyhook and damage and attempt to destroy its position in the marketplace for location positioning technology," reads the lawsuit.

Skyhook is also suing Google in U.S. District Court in Boston over four patents related to its location technology and is seeking unspecified damages and an order to ban Google from using its patents.

Is this a company that is looking to retain valuable advertising revenue at all costs? Will any of the countries still investigating Google come to this conclusion?

Now that Google has stopped collecting WiFi information, Cleland brings up another concern: Google could be secretly tracking its Android users to map these WiFi locations without users' knowledge.--Lynnette