Recent headlines about a vendor recording bits of content from WiFi networks brought to light a longstanding business practice – WiFi sniffers. Discovery and sharing of WiFi location data isn’t new. In fact, access to it has been standardized. Google, for example, has offered geolocation information in its Gears browser extensions since October, 2008. And driving around to find the location of WiFi hubs is already common enough to have earned a cool name - wardriving.
Many internet applications today are more effective if they know where you’re sitting. If you use an unfamiliar search term, search engines will use your location to see if that context can clarify what you want. Or, more visibly, if you’re searching for a restaurant, you can find those nearby first. Businesses can use location data to improve customer service such as with this this IBM/Avaya Mashup example where location is used to help decide which local support engineer to engage.
But how does 'the internet' know where you're sitting? The most straightforward way is through self-admin. More and more apps ask for your location info and ask if you want your location published. My favorite scary example was PleaseRobMe.com (now closed) that published all twitter messages whenever people entered phrases such as "leaving home" and also include their location. (Uncomfortable? You might want to check your twitter settings to make sure you uncheck "add a location to your tweets").
If you're browsing from a cellphone, it's not hard to imagine how location data can be discovered. But how does it work on a desktop browser?
First of all for any skeptics, here's a test to prove that location data is available just via the web. If you're using either Chrome or Firefox 3.5 or greater, go to http://maps.google.com, click on the "o" symbol that appears above the stick figure on the upper left, you'll get a pop up asking you to "share location" data, and when you allow it, you'll see local map with your approximate location identified by a blue dot.
But how does this work? In summary, if you have a wire coming out of the back of your PC, you probably have an IP address that your browser knows about, and there are many web sources that simply map IP addresses to general geolocation data. If, on the other hand, you're on a wireless network, there are centralized data services that can infer your location if given information such as what cell towers and/or WiFi servers your PC can detect.
Where is this location database coming from? (You can find a great tutorial on the W3C geolocation API from Skyhook, a company that specializes in location positioning, by clicking here, and some of what follows is from that presentation.)
The Spec: W3C published the Geolocation API - a method that allows a local device to query location databases. The first public draft of a geolocation spec was published in December 2008 and a "last call" draft was published in July 2009. The current working draft was released in Feb, 2010.
Location Databases: There are lots of sources for location data for wired as well as wireless connections. If you have an IP address, many databases (e.g., maxmind or ipinfodb) offer a lookup giving geolocation. But since IP Addresses are addresses in only a network sense, it's an approximation. "We obtain the known location from sites that ask the web visitor to provide their geographic location." (The Maxmind site shows accuracy in the US of about 85% based on IP Address.) But wireless systems don’t necessarily have an IP address and won’t show up in those databases. Not to worry, there are other services(e.g., Skyhook) that can infer your location based on bits of data your browser feeds it such as detected cell towers or WiFi networks. These databases are built in part by having employees drive the streets of cities around the world detecting WiFi nodes and mapping it to GPS. (“Skyhook has deployed drivers to survey every single street, highway, and alley in tens of thousands of cities and towns worldwide, scanning for Wi-Fi access points and cell towers plotting their precise geographic locations.”)
Which landlocked browsers use the spec? For desktop PCs, Mozilla's Firefox began supporting this in version 3.5 as of June 2009. Thanks to standardization, it's now also in Chrome, Opera, and last month's release of Safari. And a download of GoogleGears (a browser extension) will allow IE7 and other browsers to use it.
The first thing to take away from this is to make sure your wifi network is password protected so that any wardriving vendors or other more malicious types can't see any network content. And it's also a reminder to check into location settings within your browser or other applications
If you're convinced that your privacy is appropriately protected, location data can be quite useful. You'll find applications more personalized and local. And emergency services (e.g., Avaya Notification services described here) can become vastly more effective. So many benefits come from leveraging location data, it's only going to become more and more prevalent.
Authors: Avaya Insights
We are blogging in rapid-fire succession this week at Interop. Today I want to offer a few comments on Steve Bandrowczak's keynote address this morning.
(Note to reader: Steve is my boss at Avaya Data Solutions)
This morning, Steve Bandrowczak, Vice President and General Manager of Avaya Data Solution, gave a timely and...
Authors: Avaya Insights
Once again, I am pleased to recommend this posting from Dan DeBacker as guest blogger on the subject of wireless networks and mobility.
The evolution of wireless technology continues to drive change within enterprise networks. At its inception,...