From FireEagle to iPhone apps that use your current location,
everyone it seems is racing to get on the geo-aware software bandwagon.
So far most geo-aware features have been opt-in and offer reasonable
privacy controls (FireEagle is a good example of this),
but Microsoft’s upcoming Windows 7 plans to offer developers location
tools at the operating system level and the company doesn’t seem to
think users care about control or privacy.

Before you freak out at the thought that Redmond will soon be
tracking your every move, keep in mind that the new features will be
disabled by default. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that if you turn the geo features on, there are very
few controls available and, yes, Microsoft could easily track your
every move. Now you can freak out.

According to CNet, which saw a demo of the new geo features,
once the service is turned on, there are only two means of limiting the
geo-tracking — you can either limit to a specific user, or you can
limit it to just traditional applications (rather than services running
in the background).

But here’s the essential problem: If you enable the geo-tracking for
say, a restaurant searching app in your gadgets collection, there’s no
way to stop other apps from accessing your location as well. It’s an
all or nothing feature.

While geo-aware locations are certain a hot item in the software
world right now, they’re also at the heart of many ongoing privacy
debates. Unfortunately Microsoft’s new feature is exactly the sort of
thing that turns people’s mild suspicions into full, raging paranoia.

Here’s Microsoft’s explanation for why the geo-tracking will not
offer much control. It’s also the paranoid’s greatest fear in a

The reason, Microsoft officials say, is that Windows
doesn’t have a reliable means of determining that an application is
what it says it is, so any attempt to limit the location to a specific
application would be easily spoofable.

So the short story is Windows 7 has geo-tracking features, but aside
from turning them on and off, you have basically no control.

That strikes us as a recipe for disaster and something that will
eventually blow up in Microsoft’s face (whether justified or not)
because geo-tracking is a very sensitive issue and this implementation
seems entirely ham-fisted and ill-conceived. Of course it’s a little
better than past attempts by the company, which don’t even offer an
on/off switch.

But why, for the love of all thing sane, would Microsoft not at
least offer to notify you when an app is trying access geo-information?
Indeed, that would be a good start. Then add the ability to deny the
application access and you’re getting to the useful stage.
Unfortunately, Microsoft reps tell CNet that such controls are “not
currently on Microsoft’s roadmap for Windows 7.”

CNet’s report comes from the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference
happening this week in Los Angeles and cites several reps from hardware
vendors who don’t seem to think users care about privacy controls —
because it’s too complicated. There may be some truth to that, but we
suspect, as geo-tracking features become more widespread and people
start to realize what they are capable of, people are going to care.

The only real saving grace is that Window 7 remains in the active
development stage and there’s no telling what the finished product will
really look like. But that said, we think the geo-tracking capabilities
are off to rocky start. No doubt the company would love to be able to
offer advertisers location-specific ads that target niche areas, but
will users stand for it?

So what say you Webmonkey readers? Worried about OS-level
geo-tracking tools that, once activated by you, essentially run amok?
Or are you perfectly okay with letting the world, and Redmond, know
where you are? Let us know what you think.

See Also:

  • Windows 7 Preview Proves Popular With Bittorrent Fans
  • PDC 2008: Microsoft Debuts Sleeker Windows 7 on a Netbook
  • PDC 2008: The 7 Coolest New Features in Windows 7

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