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9/1/2011
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Microsoft Sued Over Phone Tracking

Windows Phone 7's camera application said to gather location data even if users disallow location data collection.

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Microsoft on Wednesday was sued in a district court in Seattle for allegedly tracking Windows Phone users without consent.

Plaintiff Rebecca Cousineau claims in the complaint that Microsoft is racing to develop a targeted location-based advertising system and has to map the locations of cell towers, wireless routers, mobile phones, and computers to do so effectively. The complaint alleges that Microsoft chose to collect this information from Windows Phone users rather than go through the expensive and laborious process of collecting the information itself.

"Microsoft's scheme is executed through its camera application, which comes standard with a mobile device running the Windows Phone OS," the complaint states.

The crux of the complaint is that Microsoft asks the user for permission to use his or her location the first time the camera application is opened and then ignores the user's choice, collecting location data whether or not the user has consented.

"Microsoft brazenly continues to collect users' location information, regardless of whether or not the individual chooses 'cancel' so as to not allow such information to be tracked," the complaint states. "Thus, Microsoft surreptitiously forces even unwilling users into its non-stop geo-tracking program in the interest of developing its digital marketing grid."

Microsoft declined to comment.

Apple got into similar trouble for collecting tracking data in April. In a statement posted on its website, Apple insisted that it was not tracking individual phones or users. Rather, it said, it was maintaining a database of Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers "to help your iPhone rapidly and accurately calculate its location when requested." The company suggested that users are confused because Apple and its peers have not done enough to educate the public about the issues.

To support the allegations against Microsoft, the plaintiff has included a report attributed to Samy Kamkar that presents an analysis of mobile data packets sent by a Window Phone. The report notes that in addition to transmitting location information regardless of the user's response to the "Allow the camera to use your location?" dialog box, the Windows Phone tested--a Samsung Omnia 7-- "begins sending location information while the location sharing dialog is open before the user has a chance to allow or disallow the sharing of this location information."

The report documents the presence of four distinct tracking numbers: ApplicationID, associated with an application; ClientGuid, a unique device identifier; DeviceID, a second unique identifier; and TrackingID, a tracking identifier that identifies each packet.

Particularly damning for Microsoft is a letter that the company sent to Congress in May, following Apple's tracking troubles. In the letter, the company states, "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."

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