Yesterday, Microsoft posted version 2.0 its Location Finder application. A GPS alternative for urban road warriors, Microsoft Location Finder is a client-side application that turns a regular WiFi enabled laptop, Tablet or PC into a location determining device without the addition of any separate hardware. It uses WiFi access points to center and display the person’s location on a Windows Live Local, enabling the user to quickly and easily search in their present location. I have not yet tried out this application, but it looks interesting.
Apparently, it works by accesing a database of WiFI MAC addresses. A usable internet connection is required in order to query the database with the list of “available wireless networks” to see if any of them are listed. However, you don’t need to be connected through one of them for the program to work (any connection will do). Its not clear how much bandwidth is required and it may be possible to set up a bluetooth or USB connection through a mobile telephone with data connectivity (EDGE, GPRS, EVDO, etc) in order to query the database if an open access point is not available.
An interesting question is whether the program collects new information about SSIDs and MACs it discovers in order to enhance Microsoft’s existing database. It likely does. Microsoft has even published a special privacy statement specific to this tool. The privacy statement provides, in part:
Location Finder uses the wireless access points visible to your computer to determine your location.
In online mode, information about the access points will be sent to Microsoft and the online Location Finder service will determine your location. This information includes the signal strength and MAC address (a unique hardware identifier) of each access point and standard HTTP request information such as your IP address. No personal information such as your name or contact information is sent to Microsoft by Location Finder.
The online service calculates your location from a database of known access point locations and returns an approximate longitude and latitude. If the service is unable to determine your location from these access points, other methods may be used such as IP address mapping.
Location requests made to the online service are stored in a transaction log. The log is used to improve the quality and accuracy of the service. This includes adding locations of new access points, updating out-of-date access point locations, and refining the IP address mapping database.
In offline mode, the Microsoft Location Finder product installed on your system will determine your location using the access point database installed on your machine by the product. Your location information will not be sent to Microsoft.
Location Finder will periodically contact Microsoft to check for Location Finder product updates when you are in online mode and attempting to determine your location. Microsoft will send the current version information back to Location Finder and if there is an update available from Microsoft, Location Finder will give you a choice to download and install the update. If you consent to the update, the update will be downloaded and installed on your computer.
If you use the online Location Finder service or periodically check for updates, we may collect anonymous information about your usage of the product, including version number, features used, and application settings to help improve the product. We may also collect certain standard information that your browser sends to every website you visit, such as your IP address, browser type and language, access times and referring Web site addresses.