Microsoft Restricted Access to Geolocation Database


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Microsoft has locked down their Wi-Fi-powered geolocation service. The reason for the decision was that insecurity expert Elie Bursztein recently raised privacy concerns about the data which is being stored within the service.

The expert was trying to find out whether it was possible to track a laptop by snuffling the Wi-Fi information stored by Windows each time it connects to an access point. Actually, the only way he could do that was by obtaining access to Microsoft's MAC Address Database. As a result, Microsoft took a decision to restrict access to its database as a prevention measure for the future.

According to media reports, the decision follows the Google’s move, which had the same privacy complaint. Currently Microsoft, Google, and Skyhook operate Wi-Fi geolocation databases particularly designed to provide quick location data to electronic devices, including phones, tablets, and laptop computers.

Recently it was discovered that Google's database was full not just of access point MAC addresses, but also of laptop and smartphone addresses that could have been easily tracked. As a result, search giant switched something in its service so that it restricted access by requiring two nearby MAC addresses to be entered instead of only one. In other words, the new approach made it virtually impossible to query a particular phone's MAC address in order to learn where the person was.

Meanwhile, the disadvantage of all this is that if someone wants an approximate location with only one access point visible, Microsoft will reject to give them one. On the other hand, it seems that companies like Google and Redmond took a decision to better ensure their users’ privacy than convenience, in this particular case. As for the industry experts, most of them believe that the change is really unfortunate, because Wi-Fi-based positioning is a very convenient feature to have, particularly for laptops often Wi-Fi-enabled but in most cases lacking GPS hardware. In our days, geolocation is a feature from HTML5, supported by all up-to-date browsers in order to enable services like foursquare and location-based search. Some suggest that instead of restricting the service, a move in the opposite direction, like publishing the API and making it accessible to 3rd parties, plus integrating system-wide support for it would all be a valuable improvement to Windows and the online community.