Recently, there has been controversy concerning researchers’ revelations about the tracking and storage of users’ location data on Apple iPhones and 3G-enabled iPad tablets, as well as location tracking on Google Android devices. (A Senate hearing is scheduled, and lawmakers have questioned the data collection.) Now, CNet reviews location information on Windows 7 devices from Microsoft.
Like Apple and Google, Microsoft collects records of the physical locations of customers who use its mobile operating system.
Windows Phone 7, supported by manufacturers including Dell, HTC, LG, Nokia, and Samsung, transmits to Microsoft a miniature data dump including a unique device ID, details about nearby Wi-Fi networks, and the phone’s GPS-derived exact latitude and longitude.
A Microsoft representative was not immediately able to answer questions that CNET posed this afternoon, including how long the location histories are stored and how frequently the phone’s coordinates are transmitted over the Internet. Windows Phone currently claims about a 6 percent market share but, according to IDC, will capture about 21 percent by 2015 thanks to Microsoft’s partnership with Nokia.
Microsoft does say, however, that location histories are not saved directly on the device. That’s different from Apple’s practice of recording the locations of visible cell towers on iPhone and iPad devices, which can result in more than a year’s worth of data being quietly logged. Google’s approach, by contrast, records only the last few dozen locations on Android phones. […]
Privacy concerns begin to arise when a unique device ID is transmitted, which allows a company to track a customer’s whereabouts over an extended period of time. Randomizing the device ID frequently would alleviate some concerns. (Microsoft says that in the case of Windows Phone 7, location information is transmitted to its servers only if Wi-Fi and location services are turned on. It also points out it offers a global switch to turn off all location-based services.) […]
Microsoft says its operating system transmits the MAC address of the Wi-Fi access point (but not the name), signal strength, a randomly generated unique device ID retained for an unspecified limited period of time, and, if GPS is turned on, the precise location and direction and speed of travel. That happens when the “application or user makes a request for location information,” the company says.
One privacy concern is that location databases can be a gold mine for police or civil litigants: requesting cell phone location information from wireless carriers has become a staple of criminal investigations, often without search warrants being sought. It’s not clear how often legal requests for these records have been sent to Microsoft, which said it could not immediately answer that question, or whether its lawyers require a search warrant signed by a judge.