March 8, 2021

Google to Offer More Privacy for Owners of Wi-Fi Routers

BERLIN — Google on Tuesday defused a confrontation with European privacy regulators by announcing that it would give the owners of residential Wi-Fi routers around the world the option of removing their devices from a registry Google uses to locate cellphone users.

The change comes less than four months after European regulators warned that the unauthorized use of data sent by Wi-Fi routers, which can broadcast the location of cellphones and give the identity of their owners within their range, violated European law.

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

In a blog post, Peter Fleischer, the Google global privacy counsel, said the company only used Wi-Fi access points that did not identify people.

“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,” Mr. Fleischer wrote. “Once opted out, our services will not use that access point to determine users’ locations.” He said Google intended to introduce the opt-out system this autumn.

The mobile business, especially in Europe, is becoming increasingly important to Google, which earns the bulk its money through advertising, as computing shifts from desktop PCs to smartphones and tablet computers.

Google makes the Android mobile operating system, No.1 in the world in the second quarter with a 48 percent share of all new cellphone shipments, according to Canalys, a research firm in Reading, England. Last month, Google said it would buy the mobile phone business of Motorola for $12.5 billion.

Of late, Google has taken a more conciliatory approach in European countries like Germany and France, which had previously expressed strong objections to its data-collection methods.

In Germany, Google last year gave consumers the option of excluding photos of their properties, apartments and businesses from Google’s StreetView online map service before it went live last autumn.

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, which were calculated in part by the location of nearby Wi-Fi routers.

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 an owner’s prior consent.

Apple, which attributed the iPhone’s collection of geographic data to a software error, stopped the automatic collection of Wi-Fi data on iPhone users through a software fix. 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.

While allowing Wi-Fi users to opt out of Google’s tracking system may limit its ability to sell location-based advertising, it will not prevent Google from using cell towers and satellites, two other common methods of finding a cellphone, to sell location-specific mobile ads.

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