WiFi Sniffing: Consumers Deserve to Know the Risks

WiFi is quickly becoming a standard feature on cell phones today, but with that technology comes the potential for privacy issues.  Imagine if, with just one simple unprotected number, you could track a person’s near every move, know the places they frequent, and see where they live? Google has made it possible.

With a predicted 90% of all smartphone users having WiFi enabled phones by 2014, the issue of how to protect your information from prying eyes is working its way to the forefront of public discourse.  And it’s not just smartphones.  Shipments of WiFi enabled devices could reach 3.5 billion devices by 2014.  That includes televisions, phones, notebooks, tablets, game consoles-virtually all of your computing devices do, or will, have a WiFi signal.  So what kind of privacy risks do these devices pose to the average consumer?

Many are concerned with privacy of location.  All WiFi devices emit a unique signal, an address that uniquely identifies that particular device, known as a MAC address.  Have an iPhone?  Scroll to the settings menu and you can easily find yours.  But why does this matter?  It was recently revealed that Google’s Street View cars, while driving up and down streets, had “collected the unique identifiers of millions of WiFi enabled devices“-laptops, phones, and anything else emitting a signal.  Google then made this data public, which enabled anyone to access the street locations and signal identifiers of millions of people.  So, if you knew someone’s MAC address, you could use Google to find out where they live, where they work, or what coffee shops they like to hang out in.

This revelation comes on the heels of another Google scandal that involved Google’s Street View cars collecting data from unencrypted WiFi networks.  Google admitted its wrongdoing and promised to delete the data.  This issue is still winding its way through the courts, where one judge recently ruled that this WiFi sniffing, even if done on unprotected networks, could be considered wiretapping.

WiFi sniffing, isn’t restricted to Google.  In April, it was found that Apple was recording the location of iPhone and iPad users as they moved about.  The information was stored and time-stamped, so Apple could look at the logs and see where you had been and when.  And just last week, it was revealed that a company called TruePosition, which makes software that can track your location and is used so police can find you in an emergency, is also selling their software to foreign governments.  This technology in the wrong hands could be disastrous.  How soon before it’s being sold to the US government?

Last Tuesday’s hearings before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence illustrated that the government is one-step ahead of Google and the rest, they’ve been tracking us for some time.  Testifying before the committee was Matthew Olsen, a lawyer at the NSA who has been nominated to lead the National Counterterrorism Center.  Asked if the government is using cell phones to track Americans as they move throughout the country?  The answer: “There are certainly circumstances where that authority may exist.”  Not very reassuring.

Should consumers really be alarmed by the shear vastness of data being used to track them through cell phones and wireless products?  Maybe.  While the benefits of companies like Google and Apple collecting your data are tangible, it would be better if there was more transparency about what exactly they’re collecting the data for and how it’s being done. Only when armed with that information can consumers decide for themselves, if it’s something they want.

 

Zack Christenson is a Chicago-based digital strategist who writes on tech policy.

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