Hidden Talents of the Google Streetview Car…

Whilst playing with some Google maps last night, I noticed a new control:

Click it, and the browser throws up a request:

For those of you who haven’t seen this sort of thing before, the latest browsers come complete with location aware browsing. In the case of my browser, “Firefox gathers information about nearby wireless access points and your computer’s IP address. Then Firefox sends this information to the default geolocation service provider, Google Location Services, to get an estimate of your location.”

If you’re using a mobile phone, additional cues ares available, such as a GPS fix if your phone is GPS enabled, and cell tower triangulation, where the phone’s location can be detected not only from the current cell the phone is registered with, but also from the signal strength of surrounding cells.

If you accept the location finding, the new Google map control turns out to be a blue dot control…

You can revoke the location aware privilege by going to the site you granted access to, selecting “Page Info” from the Firefox tools menu, and then tweaking the Location Awareness setting:

Adding location awareness to a web page is trivial (e.g. Where are you? Find out with geolocation in Javascript) and is something I suspect that Facebook will soon have a privacy setting for…;-)

Anyway, in order for wifi network detection to be usable, a service is required that can map a network identifier onto a location. Skyhook Wireless is one provider of this service (I don’t think Google has acquired it – yet…), but Google also appears to be building its own…

There are several ways for Google to do this, of course…. If you have an Android phone, then it’s in principle possible for the phone to reconcile GPS data with cell tower and wifi network identifers and signal strengths. And the Google Streetview car? Well it appears that it doesn’t just collect imagery… On Google Street View Car Logging Wifi Networks: “Google’s roving Street View spycam may blur your face, but it’s got your number. The Street View service is under fire in Germany for scanning private WLAN networks, and recording users’ unique Mac (Media Access Control) addresses, as the car trundles along.” In the past, of course, there have also been privacy concerns about Google Street View capturing faces and car number plates. (See also: Large-scale Privacy Protection in Google Street View [PDF]).

Ever one to take an idea and run too far with it, I had a little think around what other sorts of “assist” information Google might be able to capture from Street View. So for example, in December last year (2009) it was announced that Google takes another stab at QR codes. Will it work this time?: “Google announced a broad plan to introduce QR code stickers in the windows of over 100,000 local businesses nationwide.” Hmm…so that means if Street View captures the QR code, it can then reconcile that location with your business…

(Street View captured QR-codes also provides a launchpad for augmented reality ads in Google Maps and Google Earth, e.g. by using the QR-code as the augmented reality registration image. See for example Real-Time Ads Coming to Google Street View?.)

Something else that was announced this week – Google Cloud Print, in which printers become accessible, and fax machines can be laid to rest…

Our goal is to build a printing experience that enables any app (web, desktop, or mobile) on any device to print to any printer anywhere in the world.

The Goog will quickly work out where in the world those printers are, of course… (I can’t wait to see a “Printers near me” option appearing in context menus… Err…;-)

(Just in passing, this also caught my eye this week: Digital Photocopiers Loaded With Secrets. In short, digital photocopiers are scanners, with hard drives. So assuming that you know all those stories about sensitive information leaking from organisations via hard drives on scrapped PCs, well, err..? What happened to your last workplace photocopier?)

Okay, enough loose threads there for you to weave into your own nightmare scenario… @andysc suggested this was all getting a bit like Halting State, so I’m going to track that book (which is new to me) down right now…

See also: So What Do You Think You’re Doing, Sonny?

Author: Tony Hirst

I'm a Senior Lecturer at The Open University, with an interest in #opendata policy and practice, as well as general web tinkering...

One thought on “Hidden Talents of the Google Streetview Car…”

  1. Interesting. We recently got Streetviewed.

    Just out of curiosity I’m going to ask Google to discard any info about my SSID and any mac associated wih it. See what they say.

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