How the Windows Phone 7 location services really work

With all the madness going on right now around of the Apple locations tracking fiasco I thought that it would be interesting point out that Microsoft already details all of Windows Phone 7‘s location services in the product’s privacy statement. So instead of guessing or asking MS’s PR why no read what has been publicly available since October 2010?

There are currently 3 different location / tracking services in Windows Phone 7:

1) Location services: This is used by the OS and third party applications to locate you via Cell/WiFi triangulation or GPS.

2) Find My Phone: When enable it periodically sends the phone’s location to MS’ severs so it can be easily located by the My Phone service (note that the online My Phone mapping/tracking feature perfectly works with the option disabled on the phone. It just takes slightly longer to pin-point the handset).

3) Feedback report: Sends information via cell network or Zune desktop about the phone’s configuration, application usage, crash reports, and performance among other things.


Obviously all of the above can be manually disabled by the user. But there’s one important thing to note, something that nobody made a big fuzz about: before the 7008 OS update, the feedback report service would automatically be re-enabled, without prompting the user, every time the phone was rebooted. This essentially means that if the user didn’t pay attention and disabled it after booting up his handset, the phone was effectively sending out reports to Microsoft when hooked up to a PC and synced with the Zune software. If I had to guess I would bet that Microsoft would claim that this was a “bug” though (jut like Apple is now saying that there’s a “bug” in iOS and that the location database file shouldn’t be present on the handsets if the user opted out of the locations services feature). Anyway check out the full description of Windows Phone 7′s location and feedback services work below:

Location services:

On Windows Phones, “location services” refers to the phone software and online service that is used to determine the approximate location of your phone and provide location to the applications you allow to access your phone’s location.

If you allow an application to access your phone’s location, each time that application requests location, information about nearby cell towers, Wi-Fi access points, and available Global Positioning System (GPS) information may be collected by Microsoft’s location service and used to help determine the approximate location of your phone.

For example, if you have Wi-Fi enabled on your phone, the Media Access Control (MAC) addresses and signal strength of Wi-Fi access points available to your phone will be collected by Microsoft’s location service. If you are connected to a cellular network, identifiers of the cell towers available to your phone will be collected. If GPS is available, the latitude, longitude, speed, and direction of the phone provided by the GPS may be collected. Again, Microsoft collects this information only if you allow an application to access your phone’s location.

Based on the information received, the location service will determine your phone’s approximate location and provide it to the requesting application. The location service provides the latitude, longitude, speed, direction, and altitude of your phone to requesting applications. It does not provide the requesting application information about available cell towers or Wi-Fi access points or any phone identifiers.

Microsoft recommends that you review the privacy policies and practices of the applications that you allow to access your phone’s location to learn about how they use the location information they request.

The information your phone sends to our location service when an application asks for location includes a unique ID that is randomly generated and stored on your phone. The unique ID does not contain any personal information and is not used to identify you. This unique ID is stored by our location service for a limited time in order to distinguish location requests, which helps us deliver more accurate and reliable location. We do not store any information that could directly identify you, such as your name, phone number, email address, or address with the information received by our location service and we don’t use any information received by our location service to identify or contact you. The information received and stored by our location service only is used to provide location to requesting applications and to update and improve the accuracy, efficiency, and reliability of the location service.

Find My Phone:

The Find My Phone feature allows you to map, ring, lock, or erase your phone from the web. To provide the features that allow you to ring or send an SMS to a lost phone, your phone number is collected. To provide the features that allow you to find and protect a lost phone, which include finding the last known location of your phone on a map and remote locking and/or erasing a phone, your battery level, phone capabilities (such as whether SMS or GPS location positioning is available) and whether the phone has PIN lock or SIM card lock enabled are collected.

There are two ways that we determine the location of your phone:

1 If you’ve enabled the sending location feature from the Find My Phone settings on your phone, the location of your phone will be sent periodically to your online account at www.windowsphone.live.com. The Find My Phone feature only stores the last known location of your phone. When a new location is sent, it replaces the previously stored location.
2 From your online account at www.windowsphone.live.com, you can request to find the current location of your phone. Note that when you make a request from your online account, it will try to retrieve the location of your phone regardless of whether sending location within Find My Phone or location services are enabled on your phone.

Feedback Report:

By participating in the Windows Phone Feedback Program (feedback), you can help Microsoft improve Windows Phone. You can participate by choosing the Recommended settings when setting up your phone or by enabling feedback in Settings > Feedback. The feedback program collects information about how people use Windows Phones and about some of the issues that they encounter.

When you choose to participate, we collect basic information about how you use your programs and your device, and we note software operation errors. We also collect information about how your phone is set up, and how it’s performing.

The following categories of data may be collected in reports and sent to Microsoft periodically using available data connections:

- Phone configuration, such as the network connections in use, screen resolutions for the device, memory use, battery life, domain settings for email accounts you’ve set up, and which version of Windows Phone software is running.
- Performance and reliability, such as how quickly a feature responds when you click a button, how many problems you experience with a feature, and how quickly information is sent or received over a network connection.
- Application use, such as the features that you use the most often, what features you pin to the Start screen, how you navigate menus and the Marketplace, how often you change settings and update feeds and contact info, and how long you are using certain features.
- Software operation errors, such as problems that interrupt you while you use your device, and errors that occur behind the scenes. Reports might contain personal information, but Microsoft uses this information to diagnose errors, not to identify you or contact you. For example, a report that contains a snapshot of device memory might include your contact list, part of an email or SMS you were working on, or data that you recently submitted to a website.
- Feedback and screen images you voluntarily submit to Microsoft.

The feedback program also generates a unique ID that is stored on your device and sent with feedback reports to uniquely identify your device. The unique ID is a randomly generated number that does not contain any personal information. We use the unique ID to distinguish how widespread the feedback we receive is and how to prioritize it. For example, the unique ID allows Microsoft to distinguish between one customer experiencing a problem 10 times and other customers experiencing the same problem once. Microsoft does not use the information collected by feedback reports to identify you.

Microsoft uses this information found in reports to improve the products and features that people use most often and to help create solutions to common issues. With respect to error reports sent by the feedback program, Microsoft employees, contractors, vendors, and partners may be provided access to information in such error reports. However, they may use the information only to repair or improve the products that they publish or manufacture. For example, if an error report indicates that a third-party product is involved, Microsoft may send that information to the vendor of the product.

To improve the products that run on Microsoft software, Microsoft may share aggregate information about errors and problems. Aggregate information is used for statistical analysis and does not contain specific information from individual reports, nor does it include any personal or confidential information that may have been collected from a report.

Full Privacy Statement here. Microsoft also has a really detailed page describing the Location Services here. I would also like to point out that, contrary to popular belief, the Apple tracking database file was discovered last year and not last week (see here and here).