CNet reports on Microsoft and the privacy of consumers’ location data:
Microsoft has ceased publishing the estimated locations of millions of laptops, cell phones, and other devices with Wi-Fi connections around the world after a CNET article on Friday highlighted privacy concerns.
The decision to rework Live.com’s geolocation service comes following scrutiny of the way Microsoft made available its database assembled by both Windows Phone 7 phones and what the company calls “managed driving” by Street View-like vehicles that record Wi-Fi signals accessible from public roads. Every Wi-Fi device has a unique ID, sometimes called a MAC address, that cannot normally be changed. [...]
Microsoft has declined repeated requests from CNET to respond to a list of questions, including whether the database includes only Wi-Fi devices acting as access points, or whether client devices using the networks have been swept in as well–something that Google did using Street View. A May blog post touts “Transparency About Microsoft’s Practices,” but it doesn’t provide details.
If Microsoft collects and publishes only the Wi-Fi addresses of access points, the privacy concerns are lessened. But hundreds of millions of phones and computers are used as access points–tethering is one example, and the feature is built into OS X–meaning that their locations could be monitored.
It’s true that Wi-Fi addresses, or MAC addresses, aren’t typically transmitted over the Internet. But anyone within Wi-Fi range can record yours, and it’s easy to narrow down which addresses correspond to which manufacturer. [...]
Update, 9:20 a.m. PT Tuesday: Microsoft has abandoned its claim that its Wi-Fi database could not be used to track someone. Program manager Reid Kuhn’s initial statement to CNET yesterday said: “It was not possible to use the service to track a roaming mobile phone or laptop using its MAC address prior to this change.” After this article demonstrated how a device’s movements could be tracked, Microsoft revised Kuhn’s statement to delete that language.
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