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Microsoft publishes Wi-Fi data collection code

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Microsoft has published code for the software that its roving vehicles use to collect wireless network information. The move is an apparent attempt to make Microsoft look good next to Google.

On Tuesday, the software giant proudly told the world that it had published some of the code used by the Microsoft vehicles that drive around slurping data on Wi-Fi access points and cell-tower locations. This data fuels the location-based services included with Windows Phones and other Microsoft products.

In the past, Google used its fleet of Street View vehicles to collect similar data. But at one point, Google admitted that it had been collecting not only network identifier but Wi-Fi payload data as well, and it no longer collect any Wi-Fi data.

Therein lies the difference, according to Microsoft, which said on Tuesday that its software collects and retains only as much Wi-Fi access point data as is necessary to build its positioning database. "None of data collected is associated with personally identifiable consumer information," Windows Phone engineering team group program manager Reid Kuhn said.

Kuhn called the publication of the code part of Microsoft's "ongoing commitment to consumer privacy" and an "additional step to provide even more transparency about how we gather information through managed driving to provide location-based services."

We'll have to take Microsoft's word for it. The move comes with one major caveat: Microsoft is sharing only what it has determined are "relevant portions" of the source code. Also, you can look, but you can't touch, as the code is under a "custom license" that doesn't allow for much in the way of testing or modification.

But the gesture makes for healthy competitive sport, as it seems Microsoft is now using privacy and openness as one way to give Windows Phone a much-needed leg up against the rival Android mobile operating system from Google.

Last month, Microsoft revealed in a letter to the US Congress that it had stopped identifying specific mobile devices that use its location-tracking services.

Microsoft publicized its change as Google and Apple came under scrutiny from Congress and privacy advocates over the way iPhone and Android devices collect and store location data. ®

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