Windows Phone 7 sends location data without your approval

Researcher shows conclusively that Windows Phone 7 sends detailed location data to Microsoft, debunking company's claims

There's no doubt about it. Windows Phone 7, right out of the box, sends information about the phone's location to Microsoft. Even if you tell the camera app that it shouldn't use your location, the phone still sends location information to Microsoft.

Three weeks ago, Microsoft was sued over allegations that phones running Microsoft software send location data to Microsoft, even if the owner refuses permission to send the data. The camera application, according to the lawsuit, collects location information and transmits it to Microsoft's servers. It continues to send that information even when the user clicks Cancel on the "Allow the camera to use your location?" screen.

Shortly after the lawsuit hit, Microsoft posted this update to its Windows Phone Location and my privacy FAQ page: "Microsoft recently learned of a claim that when a user uses the camera on a Windows Phone, the phone sends data about nearby cell towers and Wi-Fi access points to Microsoft's location positioning database, when the user has declined to geo-tag photos upon first use of the phone's camera. Microsoft is investigating this claim."

Apparently Microsoft's still investigating, because it hasn't updated the post.

The location tracking and reporting also flies in the face of assurances about Windows Phone 7 sent to the U.S. House of Representatives earlier this year (PDF, blog): "Microsoft does not collect information to determine the approximate location of a device unless a user has expressly allowed an application to collect location information."

Rafael Rivera, on his Within Windows blog, reports on the results of his tests using a Samsung Focus running Windows Phone 7. He reset the phone to its defaults, set up a Wi-Fi connection, and tracked what the phone sent to Microsoft servers. Sure enough, the phone's camera application sent specific location information to Microsoft servers.

Rivera goes on to explain that he denied location information to the camera app, by clicking Cancel on the "Allow the camera to use your location?" screen, and the phone continued to send location data.

He concludes by saying, "The question is whether the Microsoft servers in question are in fact collecting data about the phone or simply returning this information with no storage abilities." I beg to differ.

Whether Microsoft saves, slices, dices, consolidates, or regurgitates the data makes no difference whatsoever. The fact that Windows Phone 7, right out of the box, phones home with detailed location information clearly contradicts what Microsoft has promised consumers and what Microsoft has promised the U.S. House. The fact that the WP7 camera continues to do so after being denied permission makes me wonder who's asleep at the wheel.

The lawsuit may or may not stand in court. But Microsoft's behavior speaks volumes.

This article, "Windows Phone 7 sends location data without your approval," was originally published at Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest business technology news, follow on Twitter.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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