14 September 2011

Going geospatial

Two geospatial items in the NY Times ...

The first concerns Google -
Google defused a confrontation with European privacy regulators by announcing on Tuesday that it would give the owners of Wi-Fi routers worldwide the option of removing their devices from a registry Google uses to locate cellphone users.

The change was made less than four months after European regulators warned that the unauthorized use of data sent by Wi-Fi routers violated European law. Google and other companies use the signals from Wi-Fi routers as navigational beacons, helping them pinpoint the locations of nearby cellphone users.

Google’s concession, while motivated by strict European privacy laws, will have an effect beyond the Continent because Google plans to offer the option worldwide, including in the United States.

In a blog post, Peter Fleischer, the Google global privacy counsel, said the Wi-Fi signals that the company used did not identify people.
The post states that
Every day millions of people around the world use location-based services, which rely on a user’s estimated location to provide a better product experience. Google Maps for Mobile, for example, helps people find themselves on a map and then locate places nearby.

Estimating the location of someone using a service can be done in several different ways. As GPS is not always available and locations derived from cell towers aren’t very accurate, Google (like other Internet companies) uses publicly broadcast Wi-Fi data from wireless access points to improve our location-based services. By using signals from access points, smart phones are able to fix their general location quickly without using too much power.

These signals can make products much more useful - by enabling public transport authorities to show you when a bus is expected to arrive at your nearest bus stop, for example.

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. At the request of several European data protection authorities, we are building an opt-out service that will allow an access point owner to opt out from Google's location services. Once opted out, our services will not use that access point to determine users’ locations.

We’ll be making this opt-out available globally, and we’ll release more detailed information about it when it’s ready to launch later this autumn.
The Times comments that -
Google last year gave [German] consumers the option of excluding photos of their properties, apartments and businesses from its StreetView online map service before it went live last fall.

The controversy over Wi-Fi data collection flared again this year when officials in Germany and France began investigating Apple, the maker of the iPhone, after researchers uncovered files on the popular smartphone that routinely logged the location of users. Those locations were calculated in part using the location of Wi-Fi routers nearby.

In May, the privacy advisory panel to the European Commission said the unauthorized collection of the location data of individual cellphone users violated Europe’s privacy law, which forbids the commercial use of private data without the owner’s consent in advance.

Apple, which attributed the iPhone’s collection of geographic data to a software error, stopped the automatic collection of Wi-Fi data about iPhone users by fixing the software. The French privacy regulator, C.N.I.L., and privacy officials in Bavaria, the southern German state leading the investigation in Germany, dropped their investigations.

If many owners of Wi-Fi access points decided to opt out of Google’s database, it could make it harder for users of Android phones to get a fix on their locations, and thus limit Google’s ability to sell location-based advertising. But the phones can also determine their location using cell towers and satellites.
Ihe second item, Jeffrey Rosen's 'Protect Our Right to Anonymity, looks ahead to United States v. Jones, for hearing in the Supreme Court in November. It is characterised as -
a case that could redefine the scope of privacy in an age of increasingly ubiquitous surveillance technologies like GPS devices and face-recognition software.
It concerns police tracking, via a GPS device in the absence of a valid warrant, of a suspected drug dealer's vehicle for a month. The information was used to convict the person of conspiracy to sell cocaine. The court will considere whether the surveillance violated the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures of "persons, houses, papers, and effects".

Rose comments that -
It’s imperative that the court says yes. Otherwise, Americans will no longer be able to expect the same degree of anonymity in public places that they have rightfully enjoyed since the founding era.

Two federal appellate courts have upheld the use of GPS devices without warrants in similar cases, on the grounds that we have no expectation of privacy when we are in public places and that tracking technology merely makes public surveillance easier and more effective.

But in a visionary opinion in August 2010, Judge Douglas H. Ginsburg, of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, disagreed. No reasonable person, he argued, expects that his public movements will be tracked 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and therefore we do have an expectation of privacy in the “whole” of our public movements.

“Unlike one’s movements during a single journey,” Judge Ginsburg wrote, “the whole of one’s movements over the course of a month is not actually exposed to the public because the likelihood anyone will observe all those movements is effectively nil.”

Judge Ginsburg realized that ubiquitous surveillance for a month is impossible, in practice, without technological enhancements like a GPS device, and that it is therefore qualitatively different than the more limited technologically enhanced public surveillance that the Supreme Court has upheld in the past (like using a beeper to help the police follow a car for a 100-mile trip).

The Supreme Court case is an appeal of Judge Ginsburg’s decision. If the court rejects his logic and sides with those who maintain that we have no expectation of privacy in our public movements, surveillance is likely to expand, radically transforming our experience of both public and virtual spaces.
Rosen goes on to highlight online surveillance, commenting that Facebook -
announced in June that it was implementing face-recognition technology that scans all the photos in its database and automatically suggests identifying tags that match every face with a name. (After a public outcry, Facebook said that users could opt out of the tagging system.) With the help of this kind of photo tagging, law enforcement officials could post on Facebook a photo of, say, an anonymous antiwar protester and identify him.

There is also the specter of video surveillance. In 2008, at a Google conference on the future of law and technology, Andrew McLaughlin, then the head of public policy at Google, said he expected that, within a few years, public agencies and private companies would be asking Google to post live feeds from public and private surveillance cameras all around the world. If the feeds were linked and archived, anyone with a Web browser would be able to click on a picture of anyone on any monitored street and follow his movements.
He notes the Wyden-Chaffetz Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance Act, that -
would require the government to get a warrant before acquiring the geolocational information of an American citizen or legal alien; create criminal penalties for secretly using an electronic device to track someone’s movements; and prohibit commercial service providers from sharing customers’ geolocational information without their consent — a necessary restriction at a time of increasing cellphone tracking by private companies.