Microsoft comes out looking good in iPhone tracking flap

Company lays out WP7 tracking privacy policy in plain English

Microsoft says it doesn’t store location tracking history on its smartphones. Furthermore, Microsoft details its WP7 privacy policy, not in legalese written in dense 8-point type buried in its Terms of Service, but in a plain English Q&A format on a Windows Phone Web page titled “Location and my privacy.”

What we have here is a rare case where Microsoft gets to wear the white hat compared to black hat (and turtleneck)-wearing Steve Jobs.

The issue of location tracking on smartphones came to a head last week when two researchers at a conference in San Francisco detailed how Apple saves location tracking history in an unencrypted file on iPhones and iPads running iOS4. The tracking history is also saved at Apple through iTunes and on a user’s laptop or desktop computer, which could make the location history available if the computer is lost or stolen.

The revelation prompted U.S. Sen. Al Franken, Democrat of Minnesota, to write Jobs a letter April 20 asking nine specific questions about what data collection Apple does and why. Franken said today that he will hold a hearing May 10 of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law that he chairs to look into the matter. He said in a statement that representatives have been invited from Apple and Google, the latter which has also been identified as saving location tracking data on its Android smartphone OS.

Jobs apparently finally spoke out on the issue in a terse e-mail to a consumer who asked about the issue, saying “We don’t track anyone. The info circulating around is false.”

Meanwhile, Microsoft is very clear and open about its location tracking on WP7. It explains that it tracks the location of a WP7 phone by detecting the signals from cell phone towers, wi-fi access points and, when available, GPS, which is also the way Apple and Google do it. The difference is that Microsoft does not save the location data on the device, according to a report today by PC Magazine.

On its Windows Phone privacy page, Microsoft explains that you can adjust your phone’s privacy settings by going to your App List, choosing “Settings” and then tapping “Locations.” You merely flick an on-off switch on the screen and your location protection is either activated or deactivated. And you can change your mind and switch back and forth as much as you want.

And, just in case you were worried, while WP7 finds your location by its proximity to the nearest wi-fi hot spot, it doesn’t snoop on what you’re transmitting back and forth to it. “The software does not collect any packets transmitted over encrypted or non-encrypted networks.”

Furthermore, the only information it collects about the wi-fi location is its Media Access Control (MAC) address, the signal strength and the radio type (i.e. what version 802.11 device it is).

Lastly, Microsoft says its location service is not collecting location information constantly (reports are Apple does as many as 100 times a day): “Microsoft ... will only collect location information when you allow a particular application to request location information.”

Kudos to Microsoft for being up front about this. A security expert I heard speak a while back said people wrongly assume that if a company has a privacy policy, that their privacy is being protected. In fact, a privacy policy written in legalese can often be a way to disguise what privacy they’re depriving you of.

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Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.