Preston Gralla

AOL: The biggest Wi-Fi privacy invader ever?

March 21, 2007 9:53 AM EDT
Worried about Wi-Fi invaders? Then forget Hot Spot hackers. By far, the biggest culprit is an AOL business partner that has put together a massive, private database of 16 million Wi-Fi routers throughout the U.S. and Canada, including network name and precise location. The odds are that if you have a home wireless network, you're in it.

The perpetrator here is Skyhook Wireless. For the last few years, it has sent a fleet of 200 trucks through the streets of 2,500 cities and towns in the U.S. and Canda. According to the Associated Press, "These trucks scan for the pulse given off at least once a second by every home wireless router or commercial hotspot, recording the unique identifying code for that piece of Wi-Fi equipment. That code is correlated with the exact physical location where it was captured using GPS in the trucks, which cruise the streets at 15 to 50 miles per hour as they collect this information."

What is Skyhook using this massive database for? At the moment, it's being used in concert with the AOL Skyhook "Near Me" AIM plug-in. The plug-in adds a new “Near Me” buddy group to AIM, and will show you contacts who are within a certain number of miles of you.

Where does Wi-Fi fit in? Skyhook uses the massive Wi-Fi database as a kind of poor man's GPS system to triangulate buddy locations.

By itself, this is fairly innocuous. But I wouldn't expect this to be the end of uses that Skyhook Wireless puts to this information. Expect it to be used for other purposes as well. And who's to say that they're only gathering basic information about your router? Will they also gather whether it uses encryption or not? Will they grab other information as well?

One thing is very clear: Skyhook Wireless isn't spending all this money just so it can support an AOL plug-in. Its ultimate goal, it says on its Web site, "is to expand the market for Location-Based Services (LBS) by making precise location information accessible to users and application providers."

In other words, the data will be made available to the highest bidder.

Skyhook Wireless very proudly admits what it's doing. In fact, it's hiring more truck drivers to do more scanning. If you're looking for extra work, it's posted a help wanted ad on its Web site for drivers. Be ready to drive down city streets for 40 hours a week with Wi-Fi scanning equipment. Just don't be too queasy about invading people's privacy.

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