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Microsoft Releases Code for Windows Phone Location Tracking

Microsoft late last month released the source code for an application it uses to gather Wi-Fi, cell tower and GPS information as part of its Windows Phone 7 location services.

In a blog posted last week, Reid Kuhn, Microsoft's partner group program manager for the Windows Phone engineering team, indicated that Microsoft was sharing "relevant portions of the source code for our managed driving data collection software." The effort was initiated so that Microsoft can be even more transparent about its data collection practices for enabling location-based services.

Recent U.S. Congressional debates have put a spotlight on privacy issues associated with location tracking services used with mobile devices. Perhaps as a consequence,  Microsoft declared in May that it will no longer use device identifier information with such services, which is the only way that individuals can be tracked when using Windows phones, the company contends. Microsoft plans to dispense with the use of device identifiers with the next Windows Phone 7 update. That possibly means the so-called "Mango" update, which is currently at beta. Mango is expected to be released sometime this fall.

Microsoft uses managed driving data collection software to create a positioning database for Windows phones. The software doesn't collect personal user data, according to Microsoft's MSDN download page description. The software does not attempt to connect to open networks. Instead, it checks for information broadcasted from Wi-Fi access points, cell towers and GPS satellites.

"The information we collect includes elements like latitude, longitude, direction, speed, mobile country code, mobile network code, location area code, cell identifier and only specific Wi-Fi information such as BSSID (i.e., the Media Access Control aka MAC address), signal strength, and radio type," the download page explains.

Part of the Congressional uproar over the issue was stirred by allegations that Apple iPhones enabled their users to be tracked. Apple denies that it tracks users, saying that its service tracks the location of Wi-Fi access points and cell towers. An iOS update announced by Apple in late April will stop backing up location data onto users' phones. Apple provides its explanation of the matter in this Q&A press release.

Google received a certain degree of infamy and strong condemnation for its war-driving practices used in conjunction with creating street views in Google Maps. It turned out that Google scooped up data from unencrypted Wi-Fi access points along the way, the company explained in a blog post last year. That practice has been ended, Google stated in the blog.

Microsoft attended a Location Based Services Forum in late June that was conducted by the Federal Communications Commission. One of the topics explored in that forum was "privacy by design," which Microsoft claims as its own approach in developing software and products. The approach anticipates customer privacy sensitivities beforehand, according to Brendon Lynch, Microsoft's chief privacy officer.

"Recent examples include location-sharing limits and controls in Windows Phone 7, local storage and prompt deletion of biometric data that helps control the Kinect for Xbox 360 gaming system, and Tracking Protection Lists for the Internet Explorer 9 Web browser, which provide groundbreaking capabilities to limit online tracking," Lynch explained in a blog post.

About the Author

Kurt Mackie is online news editor for the 1105 Enterprise Computing Group.

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