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If an IP address doesn’t do it, then how does Google know my location?

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In your articles, you often mention that an IP address cannot find out my actual location. OK. Then how does Google know my location … my actual location?

That’s an interesting conundrum. I’m actually somewhat surprised at how accurate Google can be at times, but you also have to realize that you give Google a lot more information than just your IP address.

Let’s talk about some of those.

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How did Google get this information?

Ever seen StreetView on Google Maps? When they set out to create this view of their maps, they drove around all around these neighborhoods and took pictures of what the streets look like so you could see.

While they were doing that, they often actually had a Wi-Fi antenna hooked up so they could see and record at the different Wi-Fi hotspots available as they were driving around.

For example, when they drove by my house, they noticed that there are four Wi-Fi hotspots in this house. As I broadcast my SSID, they would know the SSID of those hotspots. Even without the SSID I believe they can capture some information that allows them to uniquely identify the hotspot.

Couple that with the mapping information that they are creating and they now know that, “If you’re connected through this Wi-Fi hotspot, I know where that Wi-Fi hotspot lives. That must be where you are.”

Where am I today, Google?

Now, it get’s a little bit more interesting. When people physically move, even if they’ve moved across country, their location is sometimes still shown as their old location because Google is still using the old location of that Wi-Fi hotspot. Google may think that router is in Washington when in fact it’s in Florida until they run another pass.

You Are HereAnd that’s one piece of data, albeit a really good piece of data that Google has in front of it.

Even if you’re not using a hotspot, it’s possible that Google sees “machine A” coming through that hotspot and that hotspot then appears as “IP address X.” Well, if you’re wired to the same router that the hotspot is connected to then you also show up at that IP address.

Google makes a relatively educated guess that “Gosh, if this machine is wireless, and we know that wireless is at this location, and that location is at this IP address, that could mean that any machine coming in from that IP address is probably at or around that location.”

What your phone says about you – literally

Another way this can happen is if you happen to have a mobile phone.

I do, and my mobile phone is actually configured to use my wireless hotspot when it’s connected here at home. Rather than using up my data plan, it’s actually connected to the internet through my internet connection at home.

Well, what do most mobile phones have? They have GPS. So all of a sudden, Google has this information from my phone that says this is where the phone is, this is the hotspot where it’s connected, this is the IP address, etc. Google then has all of the pieces of the puzzle that says he’s probably at that IP address, and that IP address probably terminates at this GPS location, so that’s probably where he is.

What we tell Google

It’s very interesting the number of pieces of data that we leak out when we use various services. Google has been shown to be a master of pulling together all sorts of disparate pieces of data to come up with a really good picture of exactly where you are. While I’ve discussed some fairly obvious “leaks” in the form of WiFi and cell phone data above, there are probably many more signals and data sources that Google pays attention to.

And I know that in my case, I’m OK with that. I actually find it very useful in many cases to let Google know exactly where I’m at because what it gives me in return for that information is more accurate information that I request of it. When I’m using Google Maps, it’s relevant to where I’m at. When I’m doing searches, I’m getting searches that are relevant to my location.

Some people don’t feel that way. I believe that most of this stuff you probably can sort of turn off – but not all of it.

This is all part of what I think is a very interesting and important discussion about just how much of all of this data that large entities like Google, the government and others collect as simply as a byproduct of doing what we ask of them.

How much can they or should they be allowed to correlate? All of that data? We didn’t even realize they would come up with this when we gave them all this information and they just put two and two together.

So, there are many different ways that Google can find out where you’re at and most of them are the result of you and I telling Google – piece by piece perhaps – exactly that.

16 comments on “If an IP address doesn’t do it, then how does Google know my location?”

  1. Most of the ‘big’ players in this game have been proven to collect more than they should, often without seeking permission beforehand. So what they can do with the information we actually provide them is a chilling concept.
    These days you are bombarded with requests for e-mail addresses, phone (text) numbers, ‘real’ names – often being denied services if you do not provide them.
    Some people don’t have the information, some don’t want to give it – but the so-called ‘anonymity’ of the internet is rapidly dwindling.

  2. If you go to a website to get a weather forecast for example and innocently enter the name of your town or city, the next time you visit a website that has one of those revolving world widgets showing where all the current users are, your location will pop up first. So you just told the world where your IP address is located.

  3. You’re confused about how things work. When google listens for SSIDs and wireless access point MACs from their Street View trucks, they only know where a given SSID/MAC is located. They don’t know the public-facing IP address as that is not broadcast over the air! They correlate the MAC/SSID with GPS data from their truck. When you connect to the internet via a web browser and access google services, the browser normally doesn’t relay AP MAC nor SSID to google!

    The way google is using this information is when you explicitly enable location services on your device. In absence of a GPS receiver, the location service collects the Wi-Fi AP SSID/MAC and asks google as to where you might be. Your public IP address is just a small piece in the puzzle. When google is collecting their Wi-Fi data using Street View trucks, they have NO access to your public IP address!

    What google does do, of course, is collect vast amounts of other data from 3rd-party providers. This data, in absence of an enabled location service on your device, allows google to figure out where you live, and to temporarily attach an IP address to that location. It also lets it and other service providers store a tracking cookie on your browser to uniquely identify you as you, and, say, not your sister browsing through the same IP.

    • So in my case, where I’m using a bog standard wireless router plugged into good ol copper wires to my ISP, that to the best of my knowledge has no location services and would be the type used by most people (as opposed to 3g networks etc) would not provide any information to a passing google truck other than a very arbitrary SSID, and maybe the Mac address of the router?

  4. But isn’t only the local ip address broadcast for a SSID e.g. 10.1.1.1 or 192.168.0.1 ? Wouldn’t the actual network IP address stay hidden at least until you gained access to the network and were able to poke around ?

  5. if they listen ssid/mac of the router/hotspot then there will be some problems Google will face:
    1. it’s technically impossible to do it for the whole world
    2. there are countries like Iran(where I live) where Google can’t even get closer to let alone listen their wi-fis, get info from ISP or do lets say such spyings
    3. and there comes millions of new routers/hotspots which mean new ssid/mac every day all over the world
    but in all above cases google map service works good and accurate!!!!
    so I think there should be sth else that Google do in order to locate us….

  6. MY LOCATION IS TURNED OFF ON MY APPLE COMPUTER.
    MY SERVICE PROVIDER & PHONE # ARE T-MOBILE, SAN DIEGO
    SUDDENLY, MY LOCATION SHOWS UP AS BEVERLY HILLS
    HOWEVER, GOOGLE “FIND MY LOCATION” SHOWS MY LOCATION AS”THE WHITE HOUSE” …THE ONE ON PENNSYLVANIA AVE, DC……?
    IM AN AVERAGE JOE…WHY DOES LOCATION NOW, SHOW “A LOCALE” & WHERE WOULD THIS LOCATION INFO BE COMING FROM?????

    HELP
    P

  7. Interesting… I was wondering why google.com was changed to google.gr on my pc. We live in the middle of nowhere, no google streetview cars have not been within 20 miles. Our internet works via satellite: no phone lines here (power comes from solar). The satellite ground station is in France, therefore our IP-adress is french: we normally get i-ads in french… so how does Google know I am in Greece?

    Then you mentioned the smartphone, and it becomes clear … it is using the same wifi net as my computer.

  8. Is there any way that google could possibly request my wi-fi SSID name from my web-browser? I filled out a google NoCaptcha ReCaptcha and I saw that it returns a cookies called SSID. Could I be exposing my wi-fi SSID name to google even though I’m using a VPN proxy? It seems like they could deduce my true IP address from the SSID name if the SSID is the manufacturer pre-set.

  9. I was wondering how Google knows my location although my gps is turned off and i also disabled google location history. I remember on search settings there was an option to disable precise location. That option is no longer there. How can i turn this off?

  10. I have experimented with my desktop on a Google Map webpage. Note, I am logged in to Google and gmail on the desktop, with the same gmail account as is on my Android sitting in front of me by my home desktop. There is a compass looking icon on the lower right. If you hover over it, it pops up saying “Your location.” Now: if my Android is ON, even though I have the GPS “Location” turned OFF, the desktop Google maps page lights up my very house on the map. However if I log out of google, it doesn’t. And, very interesting, if I turn off my phone, now the desktop cannot determine my physical location.

    So here’s a case where it’s getting my address not from my WiFi (which I indeed am using); it’s from the PHONE.

    I’m still very pissed, very very pissed, that it does so even though I have unclicked “Location” on the phone. Dammit.

  11. I just noticed today that google chrome knows my home address… it appeared as autofill…I have location turned off…
    I have no pc…only my mobile phone…
    How can I prevent this ?

    • Turn off autofill in your browser. It’s been captured there from some time when you entered your address into a web page (probably a store checkout).

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