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Google to let users opt out of location data collection

The company says this fall that it will launch the opt-out service, which will stop the company from collecting anonymous location data from wireless access points.

In a bid to play nice with European regulatory authorities, Google announced yesterday that it will soon launch an opt-out option for owners of wireless access points the company uses to gather smartphone location data.

"Even though the wireless access point signals we use in our location services don't identify people, we think we can go further in protecting people's privacy," Google global privacy counsel Peter Fleischer wrote in a blog post. "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. Once opted out, our services will not use that access point to determine users' locations."

Google has come under fire as of late for its collection of location data from wireless access points. The issue relates to problems with GPS on smartphones. According to Google, since GPS is not always available, and many applications, including Google Maps for Mobile, require location data to work, the company, like many others, must use another method to determine a person's location. Since location data from cell towers isn't "very accurate," Google says, it has instead decided to access "publicly broadcast Wi-Fi data from wireless access points to improve our location-based services."

The benefit of such a method, Google says, is that it quickly finds a device's location "without using too much power." What's more, all the data collected, according to Google, is entirely anonymous.

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Google acknowledged that it was collecting location information from Android devices earlier this year. The company said that the information it collects includes GPS location, timestamps, Wi-Fi network addresses, and device IDs. However, it was quick to point out that the data collection was opt-in for handset owners.

"All location sharing on Android is opt-in by the user," the search giant told CNET in a statement at the time. "We provide users with notice and control over the collection, sharing and use of location in order to provide a better mobile experience on Android devices. Any location data that is sent back to Google location servers is anonymized and is not tied or traceable to a specific user."

But some folks aren't so quick to accept that. In April, plaintiffs Julie Brown and Kayla Molaski filed a $50 million lawsuit against Google in the U.S. District Court in Detroit. The plaintiffs argued that Google's collection of location data "puts users at serious risk of privacy invasions, including stalking."

Google has yet to comment on that suit.

But the search giant isn't alone. Also in April, two researchers announced that they had discovered that iOS-based devices collected and logged location data, and stored them unencrypted on both the devices and computers they were connected to. Not long after, Apple was hit with a class action lawsuit in Florida that argued the company violated privacy laws.

For its part, Apple said that the data was being collected for more accurate location data, but the immense backlog of data was a "bug" that it addressed in a subsequent iOS update.

As for Google, the company said yesterday that it will make its opt-out service available to wireless access point owners this fall. And although the opt-out is a response to concerns from European regulators, the company said that it will be available globally.