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

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

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28 Comments

1. draconic1991

Posts: 200; Member since: Apr 27, 2012

Nice article...short but quite informative..

5. Sauce unregistered

Many articles have been relatively short lately ._.

7. draconic1991

Posts: 200; Member since: Apr 27, 2012

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

8. Sauce unregistered

Touché

2. profperez1

Posts: 76; Member since: May 08, 2012

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

3. alterecho

Posts: 1106; Member since: Feb 23, 2012

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

4. akki20892

Posts: 3902; Member since: Feb 04, 2013

Got you dude, I know who r u.

19. alterecho

Posts: 1106; Member since: Feb 23, 2012

:) .

21. akki20892

Posts: 3902; Member since: Feb 04, 2013

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

22. alterecho

Posts: 1106; Member since: Feb 23, 2012

Whats your handle?

25. akki20892

Posts: 3902; Member since: Feb 04, 2013

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

26. alterecho

Posts: 1106; Member since: Feb 23, 2012

Thats not me.

27. akki20892

Posts: 3902; Member since: Feb 04, 2013

So you r not this dude ™®©

28. alterecho

Posts: 1106; Member since: Feb 23, 2012

Nope.

6. RebelwithoutaClue unregistered

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.

9. elitewolverine

Posts: 5192; Member since: Oct 28, 2013

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

11. Shatter

Posts: 2036; Member since: May 29, 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.

14. RebelwithoutaClue unregistered

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.

13. RebelwithoutaClue unregistered

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

20. alterecho

Posts: 1106; Member since: Feb 23, 2012

Good thinking.

10. OmarKS

Posts: 31; Member since: Oct 31, 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 :(

12. Anshulonweb

Posts: 468; Member since: Feb 07, 2014

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

15. Scott93274

Posts: 6040; Member since: Aug 06, 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.

16. amirlukmanhisyam

Posts: 44; Member since: Jun 26, 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....

23. RebelwithoutaClue unregistered

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

17. lanlaymt

Posts: 13; Member since: May 29, 2013

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

18. black02wing

Posts: 34; Member since: Feb 05, 2007

skyhookwireless.com/ skyhookwireless.com/apps-enterprise/#precision-loc​ation-for-devices For those that want to know

24. fireblade

Posts: 717; Member since: Dec 27, 2013

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

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