Looking at the Google geolocation API it claims:

Geolocation API returns a location and accuracy radius based on information about cell towers and WiFi nodes that the mobile client can detect.

Assuming a phone is in airplane mode or has no sim card and thus cannot connect to cell towers, and assuming that GPS is also disabled, how can a phone determine its location based off of only the wifi networks in range?

Is Google using the collected data from street view wifi MAC addresses, and combining it with the GPS from the street view van? would this correlation data be stored on the phone, or downloaded as-needed via a data connection? or does this only work with known wifi networks? is it based off of the MAC address or the wifi network name?

Is this Google-specific or are there other API's/companies that can do this (and not rely on Google as their back-end?)

closed as off-topic by schroeder, Xander, TildalWave, Eric G, Rory Alsop Aug 26 '14 at 8:17

This question appears to be off-topic. The users who voted to close gave this specific reason:

  • "This question does not appear to be about Information security within the scope defined in the help center." – schroeder, Xander, TildalWave, Eric G, Rory Alsop
If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • Google USED to use public wifi networks that were open to determine location, but that was deemed unconstitutional. It only determines location based off of wifi networks that you allow access. If you're in Airplane mode, then even wifi networks are unavailable. This link I believe answers your question: superuser.com/questions/727732/… – RoraΖ Aug 25 '14 at 19:38
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    I'm not sure that this is an Info Sec question ... – schroeder Aug 25 '14 at 19:42
  • @raz do you have some link of google using public networks being made unconstitutional? AFAICT its still an open issue. – user10008 Aug 25 '14 at 19:44
  • I mis-spoke... kind of. Here is a link to where the implication is that a judge did declare Google broke laws bloomberg.com/news/2013-06-10/…, but it was later ruled that no laws were technicall broken: wired.com/2013/09/googles-wifi-wiretapping – RoraΖ Aug 25 '14 at 19:51
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    @user2813274 Wifi Name and BSSID (MAC address) of non-hidden SSID networks are sent unencrypted and on regular intervals to everybody around. Regardless of internet connection, captive portals or openness. You need however an internet connection to look up where the access points are. – user10008 Aug 25 '14 at 21:03

Google have a list containing the MAC addresses and all the towers on a determined location. He can collect that data not only by the street view car, but from Android phones as well.

It's easy (for Google) to know the GPS coordinates of every cellphone tower on a city (or country), so correlating it with the data your phone sends is enough to get a very good idea of where you are.

Google already have a database (more or less) like this:

coordinates:tower coverage:MAC address

So, if you locate one MAC address on the list, you have the coordinates and the cell towers close to it.

Later, even if you have the cell phone disabled, your phone can connect using wifi, pass the MAC of the access point to Google, Google searchs its huge database, finds the MAC, and gets your coordinates.

  • Can you clarify how cell towers have anything to do with this? I am asking in the particular case where cell tower connections are disabled and not used. – user2813274 Aug 25 '14 at 20:44
  • So does it mean that a phone needs to be able to connect to the wifi network AND have internet access in order for this to work? – user2813274 Aug 25 '14 at 20:53
  • Yes. Unless the phone already did that hours (or days) before, and already knows where it is... – ThoriumBR Aug 25 '14 at 20:54
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    What are your sources? – Matthew Peters Aug 25 '14 at 21:43

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