Bowing to pressure from Europe’s data protection authorities, Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) is building a service that lets wireless Internet access point owners opt out of the search engine provider’s location services.
Google leverages GPS systems, cellular phone towers and WiFi access points such as routers and cell phones to deliver more relevant search results.
For example, the Google Maps for Mobile application helps people find themselves and nearby places and attractions on a map. And Google Places suggests businesses located near users based on the signals their smartphones produce. Users may then “check-in” to the location or even rate it.
Users may always choose “turn off” location services on their smartphones. However, the European Commission in May decreed that the unauthorized use of data from WiFi-enabled devices violated European law that prohibits the commercial use of private data without an owner’s consent.
Google is allowing users to opt out of Google’s location services, which would no longer rely on those users’ WiFi routers to pinpoint their approximate locations.
“Even though the wireless access point signals we use in our location services don’t identify people, we think we can go further in protecting people’s privacy,” wrote Google Global Privacy Counsel Peter Fleischer in a blog post.
The opt-out will be released worldwide this fall.
Why did this effort originate in Europe? That’s where Google got into the most hot water over its so-called “WiSpy” incident.
In May 2010, Google drew the ire of privacy experts and government officials when it revealed its Street View cars collected users’ e-mails, computer passwords, Web browsing history and other information from residential and business owners’ WiFi-enabled routers.
This happened in nearly 40 countries, where Street View cars grabbed location and other data to help provide street-level views of surroundings.
Google disclosed the 600 gigabytes of data pilfering, apologized, and ultimately pledged to stop collecting data via WiFi routers, but the damage to its trust was done.
Connecticut state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal vilified the company for gross data collection. CORRECTION: New AG George Jepsen reached an agreement with Google about the nature of the payload data the company collected from unsecured wireless networks in Connecticut. The disposition of that data has not been resolved.
European data protection officials, particularly in Germany and France, were incensed and have sought to crack down on Google’s data collection efforts.