Google Wins Right to Track Wi-Fi Users in San Francisco

A partnership between Google and Earthlink beat other bids to provide municipal wi-fi to the citizens of San Francisco. While muni-wi-fi is definitely a step towards lessening the digital divide, this particular plan is not as “free” as Google says it is. As the Nation pointed out, both Google and Earthlink’s plans include sophisticated means of tracking users’ activity and location in order to provide “relevant advertising.” According to MSNBC , “Google aims to be able to track its users to within 100-200 feet of their location through new wireless networks in order to serve them with relevant advertising from local businesses.”

I haven’t read the details of their bid, and I don’t know if it contains the answers, but some key questions immediately come to mind:

  • What kind of personal infromation is needed to obtain acess to the free network?
  • What is Google’s privacy policy as it relates to location-specific data of users of the system?
  • Will Google maintain a database of geographic locations of users on the system, of simply provide the location-specific advertising, and then delete any record of where that user was at a particular time?
  • Can muni-wi-fi be considered a public service, with Google acting as a “state agent” on behalf of city government? If so, how does that impact the ability for the city (and its agencies – the police, for example) to gain access to the muni-wi-fi databases?

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