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How sites can pinpoint you without the need for a GPS

Ben Grubb (SMH) | Oct. 12, 2010
If you thought websites planting tracking "cookies" on your computer was a cause for privacy concerns, what's known as "location-aware browsing" is able to pinpoint your physical location - and fairly accurately.

SYDNEY, 12 OCTOBER 2010 - If you thought websites planting tracking "cookies" on your computer was a cause for privacy concerns, what's known as "location-aware browsing" is able to pinpoint your physical location - and fairly accurately.

Electronic Frontiers Australia chairman Colin Jacobs said this could mean that various websites would have in their databases a history of "where you have been and when".

If you're on a computer with Wi-Fi which most have these days (especially laptops) then it's likely you can be pinpointed using the Google Location Service.

Remember when Google began driving its "Street View" cars around? And remember when it got a slap on the wrist from the Australian Privacy Commissioner for collecting personal information - known as "payload" data - from premises that have a Wi-Fi access point?

Well, it was also collecting the unique address of a premises' Wi-Fi access point information that, unlike the payload data, it wasn't forced to throw out.

That number named a Media Access Control address (MAC address) is a unique identifier assigned to network interfaces (such as Wi-Fi access points) for communications. And it can be very handy when Google cross-matches it with a GPS location, which it marks on a map when passing a building with a Wi-Fi access point.

How can the data be used?

Today, Google launched a desktop version of its location-based Latitude service, which allows users to "check-in" to locations without the need for a GPS. They can then share this with their friends.

If you share your location with Google in your web browser, it will attempt to pinpoint you by cross-checking your access point against the location data it collected in its Street View drive-bys

When searching on the web for sites and services other than Google's Latitude that use location-aware browsing, this website was inundated with ways of how to permanently disable it.

It's not known how many sites are using it.

Web browsers like Mozilla's Firefox, Google's Chrome and Apple's Safari - three of the most popular ways to view web pages - have introduced location-aware browsing, allowing users to share their location.

It's services like these that Electronic Frontiers Australia chairman Colin Jacobs said are "worrying from a privacy point of view".

"Despite the controls put on the websites, many users won't think hard about the settings or will get into the habit of leaving location-aware settings turned on," he said in an emailed statement. "People might not realise how easy it is for others, including people they don't like, to figure out where they are from social networking sites."

He said that this would also mean that various websites would have in their databases a history of "where you have been and when".

 

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