Privacy glossary

Geolocation

A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

What is Geolocation?

Geolocation is the process of determining the physical location of a device, either via GPS, cellular network, Wi-Fi system, Bluetooth signal, or IP address tracking. While some of these methods return only an approximate location, others can determine very precise location or even altitude.

Geolocation returns the location of the device (like a computer, phone, or smartwatch) that is accessing the locating system (like GPS or cell network), not necessarily the location of the owner. Any device that connects to these systems can be geolocated.

How does geolocation work?

Geolocation can work in a few different ways, depending on the kind of connection.

GPS and cell signals

Geolocating works similarly for both GPS and cellular networks. The device simultaneously contacts several connection points in the system being used, which could be two or more satellites (GPS), or towers (cell network). Three points of connection are usually necessary for highly accurate results—a process (called triangulation) that compares the device’s distance from the various connection points to mathematically determine its location.

Geolocation by GPS is more accurate outside, with an unobstructed view of the sky. Satellite connections can be blocked by roofs or nearby tall buildings. GPS doesn’t require an Internet signal, and so can work well in sparsely populated areas. With good access to satellite signals, a GPS-based location can achieve an accuracy of about 5 meters, or roughly 15 feet.

Cell signal geolocating works best in higher populated areas with more towers in range of the device. A cell signal-based location isn’t quite as precise as GPS, with locations usually accurate to within 500 meters, or roughly 1 mile.

Wi-Fi and Bluetooth signals

Using Wi-Fi and Bluetooth signals is a highly localized method of geolocation. This method uses the signal strength of nearby Wi-Fi networks or Bluetooth devices, along with prior knowledge of the location of these signal sources, to determine a device’s location to within 20 meters. This method also works better in more densely populated areas, as well as indoors, because of the need to be physically close to the Wi-Fi or Bluetooth signals.

Note that actually connecting to these signal points is not necessary for geolocation. As long as Wi-Fi or Bluetooth is enabled on the device, the passing signal strengths can be used to determine the device’s location and path.

IP address

Geolocating can also happen on a server by using the device’s IP address. IP addresses are assigned regionally, which by itself does not provide a precise location. However, once IP addresses are assigned, data miners (people or tools that analyze large data sets to identify patterns and “mine” useful insights) match IP addresses with other personal information (like street address) to build a more precise IP address map. A website’s server will use a device’s IP address to look up a physical address on these data-based maps. The accuracy of the resulting location depends on the accuracy of these maps. Since many website owners place a high value on knowing where their users are, data miners are motivated to make their IP address maps as accurate as possible.

Good uses for geolocation

Geolocation can make many day-to-day tasks easier. Here are just a few examples:

  • Using mapping software to navigate to a new place, or to determine the fastest route to work.
  • Location-based search queries, like “where is the nearest bookstore”, or monitoring the progress of a pizza delivery.
  • Geolocation using GPS can help locate people who are lost, for example wilderness hikers. It can also be used for outdoor activities like geocaching.
  • Websites can determine what country you’re in and tailor their content accordingly by altering language or currency.
  • Financial services use geolocation to prevent fraud. They compare the location of an individual (based on the assumption the geolocated device is with its owner) with the location of the transaction. For example, is the credit card owner’s phone at the same gas station as the card is being used?
  • Placing GPS locators on both wildlife and pets can help track and locate animals.
  • Businesses can place trackers on pallets for shipping and inventory control. They can also place trackers on equipment to monitor usage and location, both inside and outside warehouse/processing facilities.
  • Cell phones can determine and broadcast their location, useful if you’ve lost your phone, or if something has happened and emergency workers need to find you.

How does geolocation hurt my privacy?

Geolocation activity on a device can happen without the individual knowing. If the resulting location data is stored permanently, this can be harmful to the individual’s privacy or security. It can also introduce risks to physical safety. Many businesses will collect any available location data and combine it with other data to build rich profiles of you, where you go, and when. (See fingerprinting and digital footprint for more details on these practices). If the data collected by a business is stolen or hacked, this exposes your location information (like your home address or the route you take to work) to malicious use.

Here are a few privacy-harming uses of geolocation:

  • A photo’s metadata can include the location it was taken, which can be exposed when the photo is shared.
  • Social media posts can include details about where you are when you create a post, which can likewise be exposed when posted or shared.
  • A retailer can use Wi-Fi geolocation of your phone to track your movement through their store.
  • Your car can track where you drive and store this information, data that can then be stolen or revealed later.
  • Businesses can serve up ads based on your location, and analyze your reaction to them. A phone app running geolocation in the background can pop up a message on your screen at lunchtime about a nearby restaurant, then track you to see if you dine there.
  • Stalkers can plant geolocation-capable devices in vehicles or elsewhere and track individuals.
  • Content providers can use your IP address to limit your access to material, like not allowing you to access a free stream of a pay-per-view sporting event.

How to limit geolocation data collection

By adopting a few good practices, you can limit how much location data is created about you:

  • Turn off—or opt out of—location services when you’re not using them. Your device allows you to do this for all apps, or on an app-by-app basis.
  • Turn off Wi-Fi and Bluetooth when not using them.
  • If your browser provides the capability, choose to not allow sites to use your location. Or use a browser (like Brave) with strong blocking capabilities. Brave’s Shields feature can automatically prevent trackers and fingerprinters from recording your IP address.
  • Use a VPN to route your traffic through other locations with other IP addresses, which masks your actual IP address and physical location. You can also use a private window with Tor to obscure your location. (Brave has both a built-in VPN and a built-in Tor integration).

There are a few legislated protective measures offered on behalf of individuals. GDPR, for example, prohibits Wi-Fi tracking, while CCPA allows an individual to request that collected data be removed from databases. Unfortunately, these measures are limited in scope and only cover some populations. Until legislation is expanded, it remains with the individual to protect themselves against unwanted tracking.

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