Having caused PR and legal headaches around the globe for Google the company has decided to permanently discontinue its Street-View-based WiFi data collection. Multiple countries have asserted that Google’s Street View practices violated privacy laws for the collection of personal information from unsecured WiFi networks. Google is being fined in Spain and in Canada the company is being given a deadline to delete all personal or sensitive information it collected.
According to a document issued by the Office of the Canadian Privacy Commissioner, “Google still intends to offer location-based services, but does not intend to resume collection of WiFi data through its Street View cars. Collection is discontinued and Google has no plans to resume it.”
Not often mentioned in this discussion is the “why.” One of the purposes of collecting WiFi locations is to enable Google to identify user location (on handsets, laptops and PCs to some degree) through triangulation using a database of hotspots.
Location has become increasingly important for Google in ad targeting and providing relevant content/results and supporting Android developers. Google already has a pretty robust database of cell towers and WiFi hotspots that it uses (in addition to GPS) to help triangulate location. But it may need new sources of location information to improve the location database over time, now that it has abandoned Street View WiFi data collection.
In the past Google’s location capabilities have been criticized by some developers as poor. This, reportedly, is partly what led Motorola to abandon Google’s location services for those provided by Skyhook Wireless earlier this year. Motorola apparently wanted to make more accurate location one of its Android handsets’ differentiating features. Motorola (and another unnamed major handset OEM) both later reversed themselves and returned to working with Google on location.
This is at the center of Skyhook’s litigation against Google:
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. In complete disregard of its common-law and statutory obligations, and in direct opposition to its public messaging encouraging open innovation, Google wielded its control over the Android operating system, as well as other Google mobile applications such as Google Maps, to force device manufacturers to use its technology rather than that of Skyhook, to terminate contractual obligations with Skyhook, and to otherwise force device manufacturers to sacrifice superior end user experience with Skyhook by threatening directly or indirectly to deny timely and equal access to evolving versions of the Android operating system and other Google mobile applications.
These are unproven allegations in a lawsuit and so should be read cautiously. But I’ll offer some speculation here that may “connect the dots.”
In addition to other data sources, Google receives location positioning information from handsets themselves as they move through the world. After abandoning WiFi data collection Google may need to more heavily depend on deriving location data from the handset itself. I could be quite wrong but that would theoretically be precluded by an alternative provider of location (i.e., Skyhook on Motorola Droid and other Android handsets).
Accordingly it may now be very strategic for Google to provide core location on Android handsets, thus motivating the company to guard those relationships more closely and perhaps resulting in the outcomes described in the Skyhook complaint.
I stand ready to be corrected by a Google spokesperson.