We noticed you're browsing in private or incognito mode.

To continue reading this article, please exit incognito mode or log in.

Not an Insider? Subscribe now for unlimited access to online articles.

A View from Erica Naone

How to Locate a Web User with a Few Clicks

The information collected by many Web companies may not be as secure as users would like.

  • August 1, 2010

It’s well-known that Google amasses large amounts of data about the people who uses its services. Though the company says it’s careful to anonymize that data, and to safeguard what it collects, a talk given this week at Defcon, an underground hacker conference in Las Vegas, illustrated how information can leak out of Google’s repositories regardless of the company’s intentions.

In a talk titled “How I Met Your Girlfriend,” security researcher Samy Kamkar (best known as the author of a worm that struck MySpace two years ago) described a series of attacks that could be used to find a person’s physical location. The beginning of the talk focused on making contact with the target in order to convince him or her to visit a website of the attacker’s choosing. Once the victim clicks the attacker’s link, Kamkar showed how to manipulate Google into revealing his or her location.

As part of Google’s StreetView effort, the company sends cars to drive through neighborhoods, taking photos and collecting data, including on WiFi networks in an area. The company has come under fire for some of the WiFi-related data it collects, but Kamkar says that hasn’t included much concern over the MAC addresses Google collects–these are identifiers that are unique to devices using a given network.

Through triangulation, Google determines and stores the longitude and latitudes associated with these MAC addresses. This information can then be used to power Web services that make use of a person’s location, including location services built into the Firefox browser. Kamkar says he was able to fool Google into revealing a target’s location information after the target visited his website. He did this by tricking the victims browser into revealing data that then allowed him to impersonate that person when requesting the information from Google.

Leaving aside the technical details of Kamkar’s attack, his narrative underlines a key concern with the personal information that modern Web companies store. Regardless of how a company intends to treat that data, providing it’s accessible in some way it may be possible for an attacker to gain unauthorized access to it.

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe to Insider Plus.
  • Insider Plus {! insider.prices.plus !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Everything included in Insider Basic, plus the digital magazine, extensive archive, ad-free web experience, and discounts to partner offerings and MIT Technology Review events.

    See details+

    What's Included

    Unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website

    The Download: our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation

    Bimonthly print magazine (6 issues per year)

    Bimonthly digital/PDF edition

    Access to the magazine PDF archive—thousands of articles going back to 1899 at your fingertips

    Special interest publications

    Discount to MIT Technology Review events

    Special discounts to select partner offerings

    Ad-free web experience

You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. This is your last free article this month. for unlimited online access. You've read all your free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for more, or for unlimited online access. for two more free articles, or for unlimited online access.