Microsoft Publishes Code For Wi-Fi Data Collection

Microsoft has published the code for its Wi-Fi data collection software, in a bid to avoid Google’s WiSpy mistake

Microsoft has published source code for the software that its StreetSide mapping/photography project is using to collect Wi-Fi access point data, in a bid to avoid the privacy concerns that emerged when Google’s Street View harvested private data.

Microsoft launched its rival to Google Street View – known as StreetSide – in December 2009, and the service has since been rolled out to 56 towns and cities in America. In April this year, Microsoft announced that the service would expand overseas, and that StreetSide cars were starting to collect 360-degree photos of UK streets.

As in the case of Google Street View, many of these cars are equipped with mobile phone equipment that surveys Wi-Fi access points and cell tower locations. According to Microsoft, the database of available Wi-Fi access points and cell towers will enable the company to provide location capabilities for Windows Phone and Bing, including search results, weather, movie times, maps and directions based on a device’s current location.

No payload data

“The mobile phones we use for these surveys are only capable of observing the same data points about Wi-Fi access points that any phone, computer or other device connecting to Wi-Fi access points can observe,” said Reid Kuhn, partner group program manager for the Windows Phone engineering team, in a blog post.

“The software does not intercept wireless data transmissions from consumers’ computers (so called “payload” data),” he added. “The software neither observes nor records any information that may contain user content transmitted over a network.”

The company hopes that, by making the source code publicly available, it will prove its commitment to customer data protection. “At Microsoft, we place a priority on privacy and take steps to help ensure that our products and services protect consumers’ information,” said Kuhn.

Microsoft’s StreetSide cars are not currently collecting Wi-Fi data in Britian, but Microsoft has apparently asked the UK regulator for permission to map out the location of Wi-Fi networks. If permission is granted, the cars will capture three types of information: the MAC address of the Wi-Fi network, the network type (wireless G, N etc), and the signal strength of the network.

Google faces WiSpy scrutiny

The news comes as Google faces further scrutiny in the US over the so-called ‘WiSpy’ incident, when Street View cars inadvertently collected more than 600GB of data from unsecured Wi-Fi networks around the world. The information collected included payload data – such as user emails, passwords and web browsing activity.

A judge in California has ruled that Google potentially violated federal wiretapping laws in the US by collecting data from unsecured Wi-Fi networks, and can be sued. “Merely pleading that a network is unencrypted does not render that network readily accessible to the general public,” wrote US District Court Judge James Ware in his decision.

Meanwhile, Street View cars returned to UK roads – minus their Wi-Fi antennas – in August 2010. The last of the payload data has reportedly been deleted, and the street-level mapping service now covers more than 96 percent of all roads and thoroughfares in the country.

“As we have said before, we did not want this data, have never used any of it in our products or services, and have sought to delete it as quickly as possible,” said Google in a statement.