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Google's Street View Fleet Accidentally Mapped Millions of Phones and Laptops

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Street View, one of Google's coolest and move privacy-offending services of all time, has just caught another black eye: CNET reports the WiFi-scanning cars recorded millions of mobile devices—plus their locations. And then released them online.

The revelation is just the latest blotch on an already spotty record for Google when it comes to not recording things that shouldn't be recorded. Email, passwords, and other wireless traffic was mis-slurped last time around. And now we know the indiscriminate Google vacuum sucked up millions upon millions of MAC addresses corresponding phones, laptops, and other WiFi-enabled devices around the world. CNET speculates that a coding error like the one that lead to WiFi packet-huffing could be responsible for this MAC bollocking as well. Devices that had nothing to do at all with Google Street View's ostensible mission of mapping public locational data.


Even worse, the company then added all these devices to their public geolocation database, available for anyone to look up.


Now, it's important here to distinguish between a transgression of principle and one of practice. On principle, this is really, really bad. Recording millions of things by accident shows that Google still can't get a grip on its Street View roaming, even after international controversy. Not good.

In practice, this isn't really the worst. If I see that MAC Address X was at Location Y, I don't really know much at all about the person attached to that object. I can't follow them, stalk them, or other miscellaneous activities of creepiness. It's just a snapshot of where a device was. But that doesn't mean it's acceptable, or innocuous. If you were to acquire the MAC address of someone's phone, for example, you might be able to prove they were in a certain place at a certain time—information they might not want the world to know. We're all entitled to be somewhere private without a public record beamed to the internet.

Google's declined to reply to CNET. That strategy didn't get Apple anywhere, so maybe they'll have a change of heart soon. [CNET]