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Blowback: Microsoft, OnStar Pump the Breaks on Location Tracking

Redmond, Washington software giant, Microsoft, and Detroit based GM subsidiary, OnStar backtracked on policies widely seen as egregious privacy violations following lawsuits and public outcry. Here's the news:

Windows Phone Update Requires User Consent For Tracking

Microsoft released their “Mango” update, which, according to a report by Tom Warren on Winrumors, updates the Windows Phone, addressing widespread accusations and a related lawsuit that the company had been tracking device locations without reasonable consent.

In a location and privacy FAQ on the Microsoft website, the company staunchly claims that the location information stored within the Windows Phone 7 devices is intended to gather information about nearby Wi-Fi access points and provide users with location based services more efficiently and effectively; this information does not uniquely identify or track devices, they say.

However, the company also says they discovered that some of that information had been periodically relayed back to Microsoft when users access the camera application and use its US-English voice command feature. (Whoops!) This relay of information, Microsoft claims, is an unintended behavior. The latest update resolves these and other issues. Now users will have to agree if they want to the Camera application to tag photo location. Voice Command will no longer request location information at all.

For more information, read the FAQ here.

OnStar Won't Force Automated Location Tracking

OnStar found itself in a similar situation after it was discovered that the vehicle navigation and emergency notification service was to begin monitoring the speed and location of vehicles equipped with OnStar technology on December 1, even if those owners decided to opt-out or cancel OnStar’s services.

A press release published yesterday on the OnStar website announced that the company is revising their proposed terms and conditions to make it clear that customer data will not be collected after a customer cancels their OnStar service.
“We realize that our proposed amendments did not satisfy our subscribers,” OnStar President Linda Marshall said in the statement. “This is why we are leaving the decision in our customers’ hands. We listened, we responded and we hope to maintain the trust of our more than 6 million customers.”

The appearance of GPS and other location tracking technologies in mobile phones, cars and other devices has raised concerns among privacy and civil liberties advocates in the U.S. and elsewhere. An analysis by the Wall Street Journal found that iPhones running version 4 of the company's iOS operating system appeared to track a user's location and movement of whether the user enabled or disabled location tracking. Like Microsoft, Apple claimed that the phones weren't tracking specific users' movements, just using the company's huge user base to assemble an accurate list of active cell phone towers and WiFi hotspots. Software vendors, also, have been discovered to be collecting location data, often quite apart from the kind of service they are providing. In just one example, the mobile phone application for the Pandora music streaming service was found to be harvesting user location data.

Security experts have wondered, aloud, how else the company might use the location and movement data that is collected, including how it might be used by third party advertisers.

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