Most of us already know what GPS (Global Position System) is and how it is used to determine the location of every mobile phone on earth. But have you ever wondered how certain laptops (i.e. MacBook) can be located, even without GPS device built in?
This is where WPS (Wi-Fi Positioning System) comes into play. Wi-Fi Positioning System (also abbreviated as WiPS or WFPS) is a geolocation system that uses the characteristics of nearby Wi-Fi hotspots and other wireless access points to discover where a device is located.
How this works is that each wireless hotspot has its own unique hardware address (BSSID) which is broadcasted along with the Wi-Fi name (SSID). The SSID can be changed by a user, however the BSSID can not on most of the devices. Even if you do not possess of the password and are not connected to the Wi-Fi network in your range, you are still able to see its information. This is simply how wireless works, i.e. whenever Wi-Fi is enabled on your device (e.g. phone, laptop, tablet etc), your devices will scan the networks in their range and collect all the BSSIDs around them. As a result your phone or laptop registers this list of available Wi-Fi networks around it, and whoever obtains this list could determine your location by merely searching for the locations of these Wi-Fi networks (access points).
Thus, WPS works in a similar way as IP address geolocation – it compares the Wi-Fi network list available around the device against a database. But how can someone collect such a database, including all global Wi-Fi networks and their physical location, you might ask? Scary enough, there are companies such as Google, Apple, Skyhook Wireless and few others that legally own such databases.
Google started collecting info on all Wi-Fi networks on earth with their Google Street view program using their vehicles. However, they do not need to do that any longer. Nowadays, Android and Apple smartphones are sufficient. Survey results have shown that 80% of smartphone users enable location services. This means GPS is enabled on 80% of smartphones worldwide. Each of these phones reports their GPS location and the available Wi-Fi networks in their surroundings, thus making it easy for Google and Apple to just compare these and make an enormous database of all Wi-Fi hotspots locations on planet earth!
You have probably heard it a million times: “ they are spying on us online!”. This is true to some extent, however we tend not to be bothered much by this, as we think those people are too much paranoid. Well, think twice – and if you really are concerned about your privacy, turn off Wi-Fi and use LAN cable to connect to KeepYourHomeIP VPN routers – you never know who might be watching! But to put you a bit at ease, majority of the companies are not using WPS intel to track their employees. Unless of course you are in a high-risk security role, and if you are 007 yourself.