May 17, 2010, 3:15 PM — Right about now Facebook should be sending Google a bouquet of roses and a box of chocolates, because the search/advertising giant has committed a privacy violation that makes Facebook's recent troubles seem trivial.
The skinny: Google has been Hoovering up data from open WiFi networks around the world -- some 600 gigs' worth, according to the AP -- which is tantamount to wiretapping and may well violate federal and international laws.
Now that I've got your attention, here's some background.
When Google sends its fleet of camera-equipped cars into the streets to snap pictures of your neighborhood for its Street View product, these cars are also collecting something a little extra: The name and unique MAC address of every open WiFi network they encounter along the way.
Google has been doing this for years. So have other companies, like Skyhook. Why? Because it and Skyhook use this information to locate mobile users when GPS and cell towers are either unavailable (because you're indoors) or inaccurate (because the towers are too dispersed).
Here's how this works. The GSV van drives by, snapping pix and collecting the MAC addresses of every open WiFi router it encounters, then matches those addresses up to GPS coordinates. When you open your WiFi/GPS enabled device and ask it to, say, tell you where the nearest ATM is, it may also scan for local MAC addresses, match them to those stored in Google's database, figure out your lattitude and longitude based on the GPS coordinates captured by the van, and give you a more accurate read on where you are.
(I may have gotten some technical details wrong in the above paragraph -- I'm not really a geek, I just play one on television -- but that's my understanding of how this works.)
That alone is somewhat problematic. For one thing, a network ID could contain personally identifiable information, like your name, or something goofy but potentially embarrassing, like "My Neighbors Suck." (They get a lot raunchier than that, FYI.) By the way, if you haven't yet secured your WiFi network with a strong password, now would be a good time to do it. I'll wait.