Wi-Fi Location Tracking: How Does It Work?

Smartphone showing location being tracked by Wi-Fi networks in the city surrounding it
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Summary: What is Wi-Fi Tracking?

GPS is not the only geolocation system in town. Wi-Fi location tracking is a very effective way to pinpoint device locations using existing, widespread Wi-Fi infrastructure. It’s been in use for years, and it’s very effective at geolocation indoors, as well as in other places where GPS doesn’t have good coverage.

Wi-Fi location tracking is generally used for:

  • Analytics in physical stores
  • Inventory management in warehouses or on construction sites
  • Gathering personal information from users

That last one can be worrying for some people. If you haven’t modified your Google or Apple device settings, your device’s location history may actually be stored by Silicon Valley giants.

If you want to avoid this, either turn off your Wi-Fi whenever you can or modify the default geolocation settings on your device. For more information on how to do that, read our full article.

Location tracking through the Global Positioning System (GPS) is very common. It’s how an Uber driver finds you, why you can order food straight to your doorstep, or how you find your way around with Google Maps. However, GPS is just one way your location can be tracked.

Wi-Fi location tracking, also known as Wi-Fi Positioning System (WPS), takes the concept of Global Positioning System further. Instead of relying on satellites, it uses Wi-Fi routers and smart devices (Wi-Fi access points) to pinpoint a phone, tablet, or laptop more accurately than a GPS does. If that sounds both fascinating and scary, that’s because it is.

In this article, we’ll talk about Wi-Fi location tracking and how it’s used on a daily basis — and how you can avoid being the target of location data monitoring.

So, how does Wi-Fi location-based tracking work? And how does this technology affect your privacy? Let’s find out.

What is Wi-Fi Location Tracking?

Router connected to Smartphone showing location markerWi-Fi location tracking is a geolocation system that uses the entire Wi-Fi infrastructure (phones, tablets, laptops, and routers) as Wi-Fi access points to determine a device’s location.

Even when you’re not connected to a router, your device is still sending and receiving data in order to discover nearby routers, so the devices are still in constant communication as long as you have Wi-Fi enabled.

Wi-Fi location tracking is a good system for geolocation whenever the Global Positioning System can’t get the job done. For example, GPS can’t always locate your device when you’re indoors, as the signal coming from GPS satellites is weak or easily blocked.

In these instances, Wi-Fi location tracking can take the reins and pinpoint your accurate location.

Wi-Fi tracking was developed to capitalize on the wide use of Wi-Fi devices in urban areas. It can also be used by companies to manage the transport of valuable supplies or to monitor products in a warehouse.

Now, all of that sounds great, but you might be wondering where else big tech giants might be using your data. Our next sections dive deeper into this.

Can Businesses and Third-Parties Track Me via Wi-Fi?

Businesses and other third parties can track you via a Wi-Fi network if you let them.

For example, Google uses the WPS system, along with GPS tracking, to give you an accurate location whenever you open Google Maps. They can do this legally because you agreed to it when signing up for a Google account. It’s all in their Terms of Service. Google even stores that location history to use for their ads system.

And Google isn’t the only tech giant guilty of this. Apple does the same thing with its iPhones. Wi-Fi tracking can also be used by smaller companies to gather data about unaware users, as Bluetrace did back in 2015.

You can always opt out of geolocation tracking and go back to your phone’s built-in Global Positioning System. However, Wi-Fi location tracking is used in places other than your preferred navigation app–so it’s not easy to avoid. For example, this tracking often plays a role in the storage and organizational processes of big companies, as discussed below.

How is Wi-Fi Tracking Used in Practice?

RouterWi-Fi tracking is extremely accurate. Considering the vast amount of Wi-Fi routers, as well as the possibility to add devices to a warehouse or store for extra coverage, it allows a WPS to easily locate anything that has Wi-Fi-compatible parts. They all act as Wi-Fi access points.

That’s why, for the most part, companies use Wi-Fi tracking for internal purposes, such as managing products in a warehouse or materials on a big construction site. However, that doesn’t mean they’re not used in more intrusive ways.

How WPS finds your accurate location

Whenever you walk into a store, especially if it’s a multinational brand like a fast-fashion store or gadget shop, your phone will be used as an access point, and you’ll be tracked by a WPS.

Store owners use this system not to gather your personal information, but to keep tabs on how many people walk into their store and at what time intervals. They then use this information for better data collection and commercial decisions for the store.

However, even if stores claim to never track your actual personal information, they might be tempted to when getting an access point out of your device. Store owners could, in theory, get comprehensive data about their customers the same way they would if said customers browsed their website with all cookies enabled.

If your location was tracked by anyone using Wi-Fi tracking, that would be in violation of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), a comprehensive set of regulations imposed by the EU to protect user privacy.

Since the GDPR was passed in 2017, governments and local municipalities have taken action to limit who can use WPS and under what conditions.

For example, in the Netherlands, the National Data Protection Authority takes constant action against entities that breach user privacy through WPS. At the beginning of 2021, they issued fines for entities that were using WPS abusively. If you want to find out more about their activity, you can read about it here.

Unfortunately, regulations for the use of WPS vary greatly across the world. Depending on your location, you might not always be protected. This can be scary for a lot of people, especially when you’re a privacy-minded person. So, let’s talk about what measures you can take to limit potential violations of your privacy.

How Do I Know When Someone is Tracking Me via Wi-Fi?

To put it shortly, there is no way to know for sure when someone is tracking your location via Wi-Fi.

There’s no setting you can toggle on your mobile device (or any other access points), and there are no special apps that can help you find out whether you’re being tracked or not. The devices we use simply aren’t equipped to detect WPS tracking. However, you can use common sense to deduce whether or not you’re being tracked at a given time.

For example, if you let Google track your location, chances are that a WPS is being used to track you whenever this feature is enabled.

Moreover, it’s highly likely that you are being tracked through Wi-Fi if you have Google services activated and you enter the store of a multinational company.

Other than that, your safest bet is to assume you’re always being tracked via Wi-Fi if you are near routers. That might not always be true, sure; you’re still much more likely to be tracked via Wi-Fi when you’re near the routers of stores or larger organizations. But if you want to stay safe, just assume any router might track your location.

How to Stop Wi-Fi Tracking

Router trying to connect to smartphone but failing because the Wi-Fi on the phone is offThe fastest way to stop Wi-Fi location tracking is to turn off your Wi-Fi.

Depending on your access point and its capabilities, however, you may still be tracked through a WPS even if your Wi-Fi is turned off, as routers can still get your location through your phone’s MAC address. MAC addresses are unique identification numbers that act as the “name” or “tag” of your network.

If you want to make sure you aren’t being tracked through Wi-Fi location tracking, you can turn off Google’s geolocation features. Here’s what you need to do:

  1. Go to Settings in your Google account.
  2. Choose “Data & Privacy” in the left tab.
  3. Scroll down to the History Settings menu.
  4. Click on the Location History settings.
  5. Toggle Location History off.

The settings tab for Google Location HistoryIf you use an Apple device, you’ll need to:

  1. Open Settings.
  2. Go to the Privacy section.
  3. Open the Location Services settings.
  4. Toggle Location Services off.

This won’t completely turn off tracking through GPS and Wi-Fi (keep in mind: localization based on MAC addresses will still work), but you can at least rest assured that your personal information won’t be stored anywhere.

How to Always Hide Your Location

Map with location arrow

Besides GPS and WPS tracking, your general location (not position) can also be tracked by any site you visit. That’s because whenever you browse any site on the web, your IP address is visible to the site owner.

That’s why, for example, if you live outside the US, you can’t access content regionally restricted to the United States. Platforms like Disney+ use your IP address to find out your location, and if you’re not in the US, they block you from accessing their site.

But it’s not just about not getting access to a specific site. When you expose your IP address and location to any site you visit, your privacy and security become at risk. While that isn’t because of GPS and WPS tracking, it’s a breach of your privacy that you can actually protect yourself from. It might be a wise idea to understand the difference between a public and a private IP too.

The way to do that is to use a VPN.

Virtual Private Networks route your traffic through their own servers, changing your IP in the process. Not to mention, VPNs also enhance your security. If that got you interested in using a VPN, you can check our list of the top five best VPNs.

CyberGhost is a very good beginner-friendly VPN, so if you don’t have time to do the research, you can rest assured you’ll be able to figure out CyberGhost easily. Like most VPN providers, CyberGhost also offers a 30-day money-back guarantee, so you can give it a try before committing long-term.

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In Conclusion

Wi-Fi tracking is an adjacent system to the Global Positioning System. It can be really useful for merchants who want to analyze their physical stores, and if you like using Google Maps, it can help you get an accurate location whenever you’re indoors.

However, it can be a problem for people concerned about their privacy. Wi-Fi tracking has been used abusively in the past, so we suggest you tread carefully by turning off Wi-Fi when you don’t need it and deactivating Google’s location history storage.

If this article has you worried about your privacy online and offline, you can check out our browser leak test, just to see what your browser knows about you and how you can erase that data.

Wi-Fi Tracking: Frequently Asked Questions

Wi-Fi tracking is a complex system to locate devices. If you still have unanswered questions about it, check out our FAQ section below.

Wi-Fi tracking is a geolocation system that uses Wi-Fi routers to pinpoint the location of your device whenever you’re indoors. It can be used by physical stores to analyze the behaviors of their customers; by companies to get an overview of their warehouses; and by big tech giants to keep tabs on you.

If you want to find out more about how Wi-Fi location tracking works and how to protect yourself against potential privacy violations, check out our article on the topic.

If you want to use Wi-Fi without it tracking your geolocation, there’s not a lot you can do. We suggest turning off Google location storage to make sure your personal information doesn’t get stored anywhere, but since the ins and outs of Wi-Fi location tracking aren’t common knowledge, governments usually don’t take a lot of action about it, leaving you with pretty much nothing to do about it.

The traffic that goes through your Wi-Fi connection can be tracked by private companies, your government, internet service provider, and even hackers if you don’t take any safety measures.

If you want to make sure that’s not a problem, read our article about secure Wi-Fi navigation and our piece on how to stay safe on the web.

If you want to turn off Wi-Fi location tracking, you can simply turn off your Wi-Fi.

If you want to be extra-safe, you can also turn off Google’s location data storage. Find out more about how to do these things in our article about Wi-Fi location tracking.

Tech writer
Theodor is a content writer passionate about the newest tech developments and content marketing strategies. He likes privacy-friendly software, SEO tools, and when he's not writing, he's trying to convince people they should uninstall TikTok.