Practical Technology

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How Google–and everyone else–gets Wi-Fi location data


When I wrote about Google making it possible to opt-out of their Wi-Fi access point mapping program, I made a mistake. I thought Google was still using its StreetView cars to pick up Wi-Fi locations. Nope, Eitan Bencuya, a Google spokesperson, tells me that Google no longer uses StreetView cars to collect location information. So, how does Google collect Wi-Fi location data? They use you.

Or, to be more exact, they use your Android phone or tablet. But, it’s not just Google. Apple and Microsoft do the same thing with their smartphones and tablets.

I’d missed this, but earlier this year Apple, Google and other companies got into hot-water because they’ve been collecting location data from your devices for some time now. These days, it seems, it’s the only way any of the big companies pick up Wi-Fi location data.

How it works, according to Google, is that the Android Location Services periodically checks on your location using GPS, Cell-ID, and Wi-Fi to locate your device. When it does this, your Android phone will send back publicly broadcast Wi-Fi access points’ Service set identifier (SSID) and Media Access Control (MAC) data. Again, this isn’t just how Google does it; it’s how everyone does it. It’s Industry practice for location database vendors.

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