How Does Google Know Where Your WiFi Router Is?

How Does Google Know Where Your Wi-Fi Router Is?

Just when you thought that your location on this planet wasn’t so painstakingly obvious to every single company you come into contact with online, you go on Google Maps and find that somehow Google knows exactly where your house is and points its location out with a little blue dot.

This is a little trick of geolocation, and no, you do not need to provide your consent for this. The only thing they need is to try to connect to your WiFi router and correlate the contact with a location. In an era where smartphones are ubiquitous, this is a very easy task.

WiFi is a solid radio technology that works in any weather with very little interference. This is in stark contrast to GPS satellite technology which could be affected by cloud cover and other aspects that may interfere with the signal’s long journey from outer space. Because of this (along with the fact that people usually don’t relocate their WiFi access points all willy nilly), Wi-Fi can technically be more reliable than GPS for geolocation especially within urban centers.

Try this experiment one day with your smartphone: Open Google Maps and allow it to use WiFi to track your location. See how quickly that happens. Now, try turning your WiFi antenna off. Sometimes the difference in time is minuscule, but if your GPS antenna sucks like mine does, using WiFi to determine your location is not only faster but yields more accurate results within a very short period of time.

wifilocation-pinpoint

Technically, the address your IP is registered to (i.e. the billing address you have with your ISP) is not common knowledge. Your router gives Google no indication of its geographical location. In fact, it doesn’t even present its IP address unless a device manages to connect to it (meaning that if you require a password to connect to your network, you’re not broadcasting your IP address for the world to see). How does Google work out your location then?

Most people don’t bother to turn off antennas on their phones, so they usually have GPS and WiFi on concurrently. Because a wireless router broadcasts its SSID (the WiFi network’s name) as part of the “hello” it sends, there is now a way to identify it other than through its IP address (which in all likelihood will change anyway at some point in the future).

Another way is through the router’s unique MAC address. Now that Google has a way to identify your router, it only needs a location to associate it with. A passerby with an Android phone will do that quite nicely. All Google needs to do is scoop up the phone’s GPS location at the time it is connected to your router, and it now has your router’s approximate location. And now other passersby without state-of-the-art GPS antennas on their phone can find their own locations quickly.

Technically, there is no real way to stop your router from becoming a beacon for geolocation services. You’re stuck with the inadvertent role of being everyone else’s lighthouse whether you like it or not. Since smartphones don’t try to connect to routers that don’t broadcast their existence when they send a probe request, you may get away with just stopping your router from broadcasting its SSID wirelessly.

On the other hand, this means that you’ll have to manually add your wireless network every time you connect to it. On Android phones this means pressing the plus button on the bottom of the list of wireless networks in “Settings -> WLAN.” You’ll get tired of this rather quickly.

wifilocation-ssidadd

Associating your access point’s radio signal with a location doesn’t necessarily mean that people are tracking you or your data unless the connection is unencrypted. To be safe, just make sure that your router requires a password to connect to it wirelessly.

If you have any other advice for curious folks, be sure to tell us all about it in a comment!

2 comments

  1. Thanks for the nice article.
    GPS signals come trough the clouds just fine.
    It’s the multi-path (reflections from multiple surfaces) that the
    cheap paperclip antenna on the smartphone can not distinguish from the true direct path.
    GPS signals are like a 60-Watt light bulb at 12,000-mile high altitude.
    By end of this decade we may get 1-cm accuracy in our devices, though!

  2. Thanks for the informed article.
    Just some thoughts :
    Geo-locating is relying on your Routers MAC and wifi transmissions to and from that device (ISP router),but your ISP needs your router’s MAC so you get service . So lets turn off wifi (just wifi)on the router . RJ45 from Your ISP router to an access point setup and spoof the MAC @ the access point . Recommend using a free VPN provider if your just browsing ,if your downloading lots get a cheap established VPN provider. VPN helps to prevent IP geolocation.
    To keep Google on its toes change the MAC (access point )when your bored .

    Heads UP : changing you MAC address on your ISP router (even if you can )will lead to long chats with your ISP support and include a lot of laughing at their end ;) If your home phone is through that router you won’t be able to order pizza either.

    Ref (MAC address spoofing)
    https://www.maketecheasier.com/change-mac-address-windows-ubuntu/
    https://dougvitale.wordpress.com/2011/11/27/spoofing-mac-addresses-in-windows/

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