Locating and recording wireless Access Points (APs) has been a favorite pastime of many technology-minded individuals. The technique, commonly referred to as war driving, is now being used by at least one company to provide location-based services.
Skyhook Wireless operates a fleet of approximately 200 trucks that drive around in more than 2500 cities to locate wireless APs. The locations are then recorded along with their GPS coordinates. The company then uses that information to offer its Wireless Positioning System (WPS) to help locate someone within a given area, information which can be used to provide various services.
WPS works by using the ability of a wireless device to identify APs. When a wireless device identifies an AP, that AP can then be correlated to Skyhook's database of known AP locations, which in turn allows Skyhook to inform the user of his or her own location. The location information can then be used for a variety of purposes, such as providing driving directions, locating a nearby store or bank, tracking wireless devices, and even locating other people in the vicinity.
One service offered by Skyhook is called Loki, a toolbar that lets people quickly pinpoint their location on a map, look up weather information, and refine their Internet searches to gather location-specific results. Skyhook thinks its service is better than using a GPS and GPS-enabled software because it works faster to find locations and doesn't require the purchase of GPS equipment.
Skyhook has so far partnered with several companies, including Intel, CyberAngel Security Solutions, iriver, and AOL. The AOL partnership resulted in a plug-in for AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) that lets people extend their buddy list to include the physical location of people who opt in to that feature. The plug-in has drawn the attention of privacy advocates because it reveals physical location and because it derives information by using the AP locations of private individuals. Other concerns center around the ability of such technology to potentially track the movement of its users.