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Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Google Made It Easy for Anyone to Stalk You

Posted By on Wed, Jun 29, 2011 at 7:45 AM

There are some things Google should not know
  • There are some things Google should not know

When it comes to privacy, it's usually Facebook's amorphous policies that have people riled up -- you know, the ones who are always frantically checking to make sure strangers can't see those damning photos that have no business being online in the first place.

Now, it's Google's turn to be called out for its curious policies on privacy.

Google has been taking heat for maintaining a database that, until recently, allowed the tech-savvy to locate the exact whereabouts of just about anyone -- a passerby or a cheating spouse.

And it appears that Google is feeling the pressure, according to media reports.

The controversy began two weeks ago when CNET broke the unsettling news: Google's technology for pinpointing WiFi access points also captures the locations of cellphone and computer users, which can then be

tracked by any old creep.

Companies such as Google and Apple are always looking for ways to expand their WiFi networks so that customers can use their devices to locate themselves without GPS. In the process, phones and laptops that are enabled as WiFi "hotspots" also set off Google's antennas. Google is not alone in collecting this kind of data, but it is one of the only companies to make it public.

Here's how it works: Each phone and laptop has something called a "MAC address." Each is unique, and when you prompt Google Maps to find "My Location" (illustrated by a little blue circle), your MAC address and current location temporarily become part of Google's database.

That's fine -- until it's not. Such as when tech-savvy stalkers come along and discover your MAC address, either by "sniffing" -- spying on the WiFi network to see which MAC addresses are connected -- or by simply searching through your phone or computer .

They can then plug into Google's database by way of code or more user-friendly Web sites. CNET, for example, mentioned a web interface created by "hobbyist hacker" Samy Kamkar. Enter the MAC address, and voila: Why were you at Philz when you said you were still working?

After the public got wind of this, Google took steps to make it more difficult to pinpoint anyone's location so easily, CNET reported

Though Google declined to speak with CNET about what it specifically did to restrict access, it's clear the company took some action; Kamkar's site has no record of your correspondent's extended lunch break yesterday afternoon, for instance.

But Nick Doty, who teaches at UC Berkeley's Technology and Policy Lab, told SF Weekly he is confident that web gurus like himself can still find a way to find you via Google.

So that's comforting.

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Taylor Friedman


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