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Did you know how phones track your location using Wi-Fi?

Posted: , by Nick T.

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Did you know how phones track your location using Wi-Fi?

There's a GPS radio built into most modern smartphones. It is what the device uses to pin-point its own location, aided by a bunch of satellites that float above us, of course. This, however, isn't the only technique used to track the whereabouts of handsets and their users. Crowd-sourced Wi-Fi data also helps in the process. This is why if your phone's Wi-Fi is turned off, your mapping or navigation app might ask you to enable it for better accuracy.


But how does Wi-Fi know where we are anyway? Isn't its purpose to get us hooked to the internet? Well, while the latter is true, Wi-Fi can also be used to obtain a mobile device's position. That is possible thanks to the set of location services built into today's popular operating systems, namely Android, iOS, and Windows Phone. When enabled, these services scan the area for Wi-Fi networks and log their locations in a huge database. This database is shared across devices, which allows a smartphone or tablet to get its approximate location by knowing what Wi-Fi networks are around it. 


Location pin-pointing using Wi-Fi data is less accurate than GPS, but it could improve location accuracy in cases when satellite signal isn't excellent or totally missing – inside of a shopping mall, for example. It is also what enables a Wi-Fi-only iPad, which lacks GPS hardware, to detect its approximate location.


If all of this is getting you worried about your privacy, there are ways of turning a smartphone's location services off. Just keep in mind that doing so would make your smartphone less smart than it is. 


references: Apple, Google, Windows Phone FAQ

28 Comments
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posted on 12 Mar 2014, 10:47 8

1. draconic1991 (Posts: 117; Member since: 27 Apr 2012)


Nice article...short but quite informative..

posted on 12 Mar 2014, 11:52 2

5. Sauce (unregistered)


Many articles have been relatively short lately

._.

posted on 12 Mar 2014, 12:20 3

7. draconic1991 (Posts: 117; Member since: 27 Apr 2012)


Well then...as long as they're gud...keem 'em coming..

posted on 12 Mar 2014, 12:32 1

8. Sauce (unregistered)


Touché

posted on 12 Mar 2014, 11:20 3

2. profperez1 (Posts: 48; Member since: 08 May 2012)


My iPhone tells me this----like---5x a day!

posted on 12 Mar 2014, 11:28 1

3. alterecho (Posts: 1059; Member since: 23 Feb 2012)


What about our home WiFi networks? Is that stored in their databases as well?
Nice info, by the way.

posted on 12 Mar 2014, 11:31 4

4. akki20892 (Posts: 3268; Member since: 04 Feb 2013)


Got you dude, I know who r u.

posted on 12 Mar 2014, 20:32 1

19. alterecho (Posts: 1059; Member since: 23 Feb 2012)


:) .

posted on 12 Mar 2014, 21:14 1

21. akki20892 (Posts: 3268; Member since: 04 Feb 2013)


Haha good to see you buddy. What about on Disqus.

posted on 13 Mar 2014, 00:42 1

22. alterecho (Posts: 1059; Member since: 23 Feb 2012)


Whats your handle?

posted on 13 Mar 2014, 08:54 1

25. akki20892 (Posts: 3268; Member since: 04 Feb 2013)


What do u mean? I mean on disqus board, on blog Gsmarena.

posted on 13 Mar 2014, 10:30 1

26. alterecho (Posts: 1059; Member since: 23 Feb 2012)


Thats not me.

posted on 13 Mar 2014, 15:07 1

27. akki20892 (Posts: 3268; Member since: 04 Feb 2013)


So you r not this dude ™®©

posted on 13 Mar 2014, 20:53 1

28. alterecho (Posts: 1059; Member since: 23 Feb 2012)


Nope.

posted on 12 Mar 2014, 12:01 1

6. RebelwithoutaClue (Posts: 501; Member since: 05 Apr 2013)


Yes all wifi networks are stored in databases. And as far as I know, Google is the only one with an opt_out; add the _nomap to the SSID, which is a crappy method. Still beats no opt_out at all.

posted on 12 Mar 2014, 13:01

9. elitewolverine (Posts: 1196; Member since: 28 Oct 2013)


windows has location services on and off, i do not know if this stops wifi prying

posted on 12 Mar 2014, 13:27

11. Shatter (Posts: 1970; Member since: 29 May 2013)


I have a Netgear Nighthawk and it let's me hide my SSID which helps. At least the people who live around me don't know it exist. Its impossible to keep your network off their databases though. I recently switched from uverse to Cox 100mbps and thei uverse gateway didn't let me hide the ssid.

posted on 12 Mar 2014, 13:47

14. RebelwithoutaClue (Posts: 501; Member since: 05 Apr 2013)


Since it's the phone doing the reporting to Google/Apple/MS and your phone does know the SSID, it still goes into their databases.

posted on 12 Mar 2014, 13:46 1

13. RebelwithoutaClue (Posts: 501; Member since: 05 Apr 2013)


Nope, since another person with location services on, will actively sniff out your wifi when he's around

posted on 12 Mar 2014, 20:38

20. alterecho (Posts: 1059; Member since: 23 Feb 2012)


Good thinking.

posted on 12 Mar 2014, 13:02

10. OmarKS (Posts: 12; Member since: 31 Oct 2013)


Thanks for the info. Well its good to turn on the gps/wifi in phones but they'll drain battery life, don't they? Battery life is very important :(

posted on 12 Mar 2014, 13:41 1

12. Anshulonweb (Posts: 285; Member since: 07 Feb 2014)


I didn't understand last line.... how can turning off location services make smartphone less smart??....

posted on 12 Mar 2014, 13:51 2

15. Scott93274 (Posts: 545; Member since: 06 Aug 2013)


Turning this feature off would effectively disable many neat feature of smart phones. Google now can tell me how long of a commute to work it will be from my current position, it can also provide me with restaurants, points of interest of the surrounding area. If your phone is unable to determine your location then when you ask for directions to Best Buy, it will provide you with any random store instead of the nearest to your location.

posted on 12 Mar 2014, 14:26

16. amirlukmanhisyam (Posts: 40; Member since: 26 Jun 2012)


The offline map/navigation for symbian and meego don't ask for mobile network or WiFi to assist the phone to pin point my location....

posted on 13 Mar 2014, 04:22

23. RebelwithoutaClue (Posts: 501; Member since: 05 Apr 2013)


Neither do offline navs for Android, if you only turn on GPS and not location services.

posted on 12 Mar 2014, 14:27

17. lanlaymt (Posts: 4; Member since: 29 May 2013)


Now we know why google scanned wifi during google street photos.....

posted on 12 Mar 2014, 18:45

18. black02wing (Posts: 16; Member since: 05 Feb 2007)


skyhookwireless.com/

skyhookwireless.com/apps-enterprise/#precision-loc​ation-for-devices

For those that want to know

posted on 13 Mar 2014, 04:23

24. fireblade (Posts: 634; Member since: 27 Dec 2013)


Too bad, Mediatek based phone has poor GPS eventhough you activate WiFi. Don't buy phones using Mediatek CPU

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