As I predicted, Google won't be sucking down Wi-Fi signals in its future Street View efforts in some countries: After the debacle of Google first saying it wasn't collecting data from Wi-Fi networks, only scanning for readily available public information, and then discovering and admitting it had stored information, the company is taking a different tack.
It's restarting Street View photography in Ireland, Norway, South Africa, and Sweden, but vehicles won't have Wi-Fi hardware on board, and the software has been vetted by a third-party to ensure there's no component that might have collected Wi-Fi data still installed (even though removing the hardware might be seen as enough).
I thought that the likely outcome for Google for its missteps was likely a very tiny amount of money in the forms of fines or voluntary settlement figures, but no criminal charges nor more than a technical slap on the rest--so long as Google agreed to stop scanning Wi-Fi signals, even if it promised to stop collecting data.
By being seemingly forced to exit the Wi-Fi positioning business, Skyhook Wireless reaps the biggest rewards, in that it will be the only worldwide provider of such information.
However, Google also uses the Android platform to collect Wi-Fi positioning information--something also employed by Skyhook Wireless, as News.com reported a few weeks ago. Every time a mobile devices sends a snapshot of the Wi-Fi environment to a Google or Skyhook server for lookup, that information further refines location data for subsequent users.
But mobile-submitted data isn't enough. For one thing, most of this data isn't tagged with reliable GPS coordinates when sent to the server--the intent of sending to the server is to obtain latitude and longitude in the first place. Skyhook and, formerly Google, drives with precision GPS receives and high-gain antennas to seed and re-seed their databases.
Meanwhile, in Australia, the country's privacy commissioner has found Google broke the law in sucking down data, even though such data was being publicly disseminated. The Sydney Morning Herald quotes commissioner Karen Curtis saying, "Any collection of personal information would have breached the Australian Privacy Act."
But I fear this sends the wrong message. Curtis says, "Australians should reasonably expect that private communications remain private." Not quite. If you're sending information unencrypted when the facility to protect that information is readily (and freely) available in the hardware you purchased, then you are sending private information in a public fashion, and shouldn't enjoy any expectation of privacy. Setting the bar that publicly broadcast information ensures privacy protections seems a bit rich.
Nevertheless, Google has apologized to Australians. Expect more apologies to be forthcoming.