Location, Location, Location: How They Found You
Photo from PxHere.com

Location, Location, Location: How They Found You

From the Secret Service to advertisers and Google, everyone wants to know who and where you are. Location data is one of hundreds of signals that marketers and trackers use to identify us online. The national surveillance state uses location to track our movements – at protests, for example. In this article we’ll look at a few ways our devices give out our location, and what to do about it.

Location Services

On your phone the first culprit is usually location services, built in to the system. Using location services, apps and even websites can get your location right down to your GPS coordinates. This is by far the most accurate way to get your location. It’s not always bad: Imagine getting directions using a map app that can’t figure out what street you’re on!

Location Services’ pinpoint accuracy comes from using a combination of signals: GPS, Bluetooth, WiFi and cellular data. GPS is the decades-old civilian technology that in-car navigation devices use. Bluetooth is for more than just pairing headphones: by using location beacons, Bluetooth devices can get pretty specific about where they are.

For WiFi, remember Google cars driving around taking pictures of every street? They were also automatically taking notes of what WiFi networks were around and recording the name and signal strength of each along with the location. (Google was sued for collecting too much data via this method and claimed it was a mistake.)

We’ll cover cellular technology in another section.

Protecting Yourself

It’s pretty easy to turn off location services on your iPhone/iPad or your Android phone. But you might not want them turned off permanently: If you’re using an app that actually needs location data, you should only give those apps access while you’re using the app. On Android, change the settings to “Allow only while in use.” For iOS, you can give apps permission “while using.”

Consider whether an app really needs your location. A weather app might seem like a good candidate for location services, but you can always just enter your city. Just recently, IBM settled a lawsuit that accused the company of selling geolocation data without user permission.

You could choose to turn Bluetooth or WiFi off. This may slightly decrease the accuracy of location data (especially in cities where GPS coordinates bounce off skyscrapers), but probably won’t be enough. It will help preserve your battery a bit, though.

IP Address

Every device connected to the Internet has an IP address. Like a street address, it’s a way for other computers – like website servers – to know how to address your device. Unlike a home address, IP addresses can change, but like a US zip code, similar IP addresses are probably in the same general location.

Check out geoipview.com and see how close it gets to where you are. The website correctly puts me in New Haven, CT – about a mile from my home. Sites like these rely on pubilcly-available databases of IP addresses and their locations.

A google maps screenshot showing New Haven, United States
geoipview.com puts me in New Haven, CT. I’ve blocked out my home IP from this screenshot.

Not every IP geolocation database is created equal. Some of them put me in Hartford, about 45 minutes away. But your Internet Service Provider (Comcast, AT&T, etc) can look up your account from your IP address, should they be asked to by law enforcement.

Protecting Yourself

This one is a little more difficult. Changing your IP address likely won’t make a difference here, especially if you’re at home or your office.

There could be a few reasons to be concerned about giving out your IP address or general location to a website: You could be doing research or reconnaissance and not want the website owner to know where you’re coming from, for example. Or you might not want to tie an online identity you use to your location at all.

One option is to use a VPN: These services send all of your Internet traffic through another server somewhere in the world, making it look like you’re in another place.

In this screenshot, you can see the list of places my VPN provider allows me to connect to. There are multiple options in the US and Canada, which I’ve hidden to show the options for other countries.

When choosing a VPN provider, avoid free services. Remember, if you’re not paying for it, you are the product. A full article on VPNs will be published soon on Tech for the People; in the meantime, I recommend ProtonVPN or Private Internet Access.

Cell Towers

In order to get you the best signal – clearest voice and fastest data – your phone is constantly looking for nearby towers. Unfortunately, this fundamental way that cellular networks function means your phone is also constantly giving your location to your provider (think AT&T, Verizon, etc). Your phone (actually, your SIM card) is tied to your account, and your account is tied to you.

Law enforcement have in the past used this information. In Carpenter v. United States (2018), the Supreme Court ruled that law enforcement needed to get warrants to request this information from cell phone providers. Unfortunately, the Carpenter ruling was very limited in scope and didn’t address fundamental questions around the Third Party Doctrine, a legal precedent that “the Fourth Amendment does not prohibit the obtaining of information revealed to a third party and conveyed by him to Government authorities.” That is, a company should just be able to give over information to the government when they ask.

Protecting Yourself

This one is the most difficult. You may just need to leave your phone at home if your location data can’t be revealed.

This advice isn’t just for super-secret activists fighting the state: Victims of domestic or other abuse at home won’t want their cell phone company to know where they are, either. If you’re on a family plan, or an abuser calls the cell phone company pretending to be a concerned loved one and convinces the poor customer service worker making minimum wage, they could get your location.

If you’re in this situation, you’ll want to look into getting a burner phone – ideally with cash.

Conclusion

Our phones and computers are potentially giving away our location every millisecond. As the Supreme Court said in Carpenter, “A cell phone—almost a ‘feature of human anatomy,’ … tracks nearly exactly the movements of its owner.”

Reasons for wanting to obscure your location will vary, and so will the techniques you use to do so.