Written by Internet, Mobile, Technology

Online Privacy

A couple of weeks ago, I started playing with Geode – a Firefox plugin that allows your browser to use geolocation technology to determine whereabouts you are.
When you reach a Geode compatable site, a bar at the top of the browser asks you how much information you want to pass to the requesting site – Exact, Neighbourhood, City, Nothing.
When I tested it, I decided it could have my exact location. Now I was trying this using a WiFi laptop sitting at home. A Google map appeared and I was shocked to discover that it had my location within perhaps 10 metres.
My laptop has no GPS to position me, and it isn’t connected to a cell-network for triangulation via cell towers. So how did it locate me?
Geode currently uses Skyhook who essentially maintain a database using GPS, cell tower locations and, importantly, a reference list of WiFi websites that are geocoded.
Mine is not the only wireless network in the flats where I live. I can see eight or ten other networks to one extent or another. And my neighbours are technical enough to have security enabled their networks (I discovered this when I was between routers and tried to find someone to leach from before my replacement router arrived). It’s entirely possible that someone else’s router is registered to Skyhook.
I assume that this is how my location was determined. I have a fixed IP Address and my ISP does know where I live, but it doesn’t know whether or not I have WiFi, so I don’t think that there’s any data it could be selling on about me. In any case, if I beef up my WiFi security to the maximum, there’s no way to discover my IP Address simply by sniffing my router.
But I would like to know for certain that one of my neighbours has registered their router, and my location is not somehow coming from my own router. While I’m sure that Skyhook’s privacy is strict, I like to be in charge of my own data.
I was thinking about that when I was looking into another technology – satnavs. At the weekend, Something For The Weekend, the Tim Lovejoy vehicle, had their regular gadget review. A lady came on to demonstrate a couple of new pieces of technology. One was a TomTom satnav that included the usual mapping and traffic information, as well as things like local petrol prices.
Lovejoy asked a very fair question: how did the satnav know the prices? “From the satellites” came the answer. He tried again: he understood how the device knew where it was, but where was the petrol price information coming from. Satellites was again the answer. Eventually he gave up and moved on.
It was a fair question, because of couse, the only information coming from GPS satellites is location information – or more to the point, information about the satellites’ positions to allow the device to triangulate its position on Earth. GPS satellites do not transmit UK petrol prices.
So how was it getting its info? Many devices have traffic information – usually provided by Trafficmaster. This is broadcast in the UK using RDS TMC technology on the FM network. Classic FM, the only national commercial FM operator carries the data and so as long as your satnav can receive Classic FM, it can pull that data down and use it to plot alternative routes etc. A separate system
But that’s not how TomTom is getting either its traffic info, or its petrol price info. The petrol price info actually has to be downloaded via your home PC. I guess you just plug your device in regularly to keep it up to date. You’re not storing your satnav in your glove compartment are you? TomTom buys the data from a third-party company.
But it’s their HD Traffic I’m more interested in. Devices with this technology have SIM cards fitted, and we’re told that the system uses 16.7m anonymous mobile phones. By capturing location detail from these phones, the system is able to monitor traffic flow – and you can be sure that these devices also contribute to that information. TomTom is, of course, keen to point out that this is an anonymous service, and you can’t be tracked with it (there are mobile phone tracking services out there elsewhere mind you).
But given that the technology is fairly new, whose 16.7m phones is it using, and do the owners of those phones know?
The initial Dutch data utilised the Vodafone network, and it’s that network that’s also being used in the UK.
So if you’re a Vodafone subscriber, did you know that Vodafone is monetising the data they collect about your location? To be clear, that’s essentially data about which mast or masts your phone can see when it pings them. I’m sure that buried away in the terms and conditions you signed when you took our your contract, you agreed to let them use said data. But I feel uncomfortable about this.