It might not be very transparent for you as a website visitor, how you are being tracked online, for what reason, when, and by whom. But for the most part, you are likely being tracked, and so you want to know more and would want to stop it.
In this post, we will provide you with the most precise answers to such questions. We will go through how a website or web app tracks you, which tools they are using, and what information they can collect without your consent and knowledge. We will also go through a couple of techniques you can use to protect your identity. Some are easy as deactivating an option on your browser, others are moderate as hiring a VPN or proxy server, and others are advanced and even considered illegal.
Table of Contents.
- What is Internet Tracking?
- How can websites track your location?
- How to avoid a website or app from tracking your location?
- Frequently Asked Question (FAQ).
1. What is Internet Tracking?
Internet or online tracking is usually performed by websites, web apps, and web services to gain insights into their users and learn about their behaviors and preferences. Online organizations and businesses collect data from their users in order to track them. They can use this collected data to optimize user experience, perform statistics, A/B tests, user profiling, or target advertising and marketing.
Can a website know your physical location?
Yes, a website on a fundamental level will know more than what you think. Websites can use simple tools (extensions) like WP statistics to collect Geolocation IP data and map IP into the country, state, or city. Geo-location uses IP addresses to get an idea of where visitors are coming from. Although these programs are not 100% accurate (especially free ones), some premium database services will probably know a lot about IP addresses or their subnets. For instance, if you ever used a weather application, where you input a zip code or town, these websites will instantly map your IP address with the zip code you are entering.
2. How can websites track your location?
Yes, a website can track your location. In fact, there are generally a couple of ways most web apps, sites, and services can use to keep track of your location; these include:
- IP Address: The IP address is like your ID to the Internet. It helps servers, proxies, routers, etc., know where to forward data packets destined to you (or vice-versa destined to a webserver). With an IP address, anyone can determine at least your continent. With additional geo-tracking services, anyone can determine your ISP, country, zip code, town, street name, and in strange cases, sometimes even your home address… scary, right?
- GPS: Although modern GPS data is obtained from mobile data (SIM card) or WiFi, most modern smartphones have built-in GPS receivers. This is why you can pre-load a map into a GPS application, put your phone on airplane mode, and the phone will still give you a location. GPS is not related to IP.
- HTML5 Geolocation. An HTML5 browser API is used by websites and services to obtain your location via latitude and longitude coordinates. HTML pages such as Target.com can know your device’s location information and automatically find nearby stores without you entering any information, like zip code or city. HTML5 can use available connections like GPS or WiFi/mobile to determine the current latitude and longitude.
3. How to avoid a website or app from tracking your location?
Start with applications; re-think how you use web browsers, web apps, and services. Then think about your media layers such as network and physical, your IP address, GPS, WiFi signals, etc.
a. Check your browser or reconsider getting a new one.
Browsers and apps send a lot of your data to the destination web server or apps. They send HTTP packets with your country of origin, language, and other settings. Browsers save your cookies. Websites use these cookies to save and track sessions. If you are using your favorite browser with your account (without removing cookies), the cookies will help anyone keep track of you.
- Use a non-default browser. For instance, use the Brave browser to avoid being tracked and shown ads. But avoid importing history and settings from old browsers. Do not log into your accounts, and do not accept cookies. For added anonymity, you can also use the Tor browser for full privacy.
- Log out from your browser accounts. This can be uncomfortable for anybody that has everything set up in their favorite web browser, but it is an easy way to avoid being tracked and mapped. Don’t log into your browser account, for instance, your Gmail account. Additionally, avoid loading any default browser configurations into a new browser.
- Disable location sharing on your web browser and mobile. Some websites will request you to enable geolocation tracking (HTML5); if you approve it, it will change the configuration of your browser and provide the country of origin (and more) to the target browser. For instance, turn off Google’s tracking abilities for Google Maps and other services on your mobile and desktop.
b. Mask your location with VPNs, proxies, or Tor.
If using a desktop or mobile device, use the following method:
- Mask your IP. Use a VPN or proxy to change (spoof) your location. A Virtual Private Network (VPN) masks your original IP with the server’s VPN IP and encrypts your traffic. In addition, you can also use an anonymity proxy. Proxies are not as secure as VPNs because they do not encrypt traffic. However, proxies are usually cheaper than VPNs. At all costs, always avoid using free proxies. There are many different types of proxies; an anonymity proxy level 2 or level 1 would be the way to go. You can also consider using the Tor browser, which uses the Onion routing technology with thousands of relay nodes that spoof your actual Internet location.
If using a mobile device, you can use any of the above methods and the following.
Note that the below two practices might be considered illegal in some countries. You’ll likely even need to root your mobile phone. Use it for learning purposes. In addition, bear in mind that most service and application providers provide you with legal terms of usage. Read them before spoofing GPS or IMEI.
- Use a GPS spoofer. GPS spoofers are common mobile iOS and Android apps and services. They can fake your device’s real GPS location and make it look like you are somewhere else. Although GPS spoofing is often associated with attacks or cybercriminals, it is often used by companies protecting valuable merchandising, by the military to mislead opponents, and by people who might suffer from surveillance or stalking and want to prevent precise movement tracking. GPS spoofing is also common in games, especially Pokemon GO.
- MNO and IMEI identification. ISPs and mobile operators provide you access to their infrastructure so that you can connect to the Internet. For billing, registration, and other purposes, they know which mobiles are connected to which antennas. They basically can track any mobile with their IMEI (International Mobile Equipment Identity) and know which 3G/4G/5G antenna those IMEIs are connected to. By law, ISPs and MNO need to protect all IMEIs location data. In addition, bear in mind that no website can track your location with an IMEI, except ISPs and MNOs.
Frequently Asked Question (FAQ).
- Can a VPN change your location? Yes, it can change your location by masking your IP. Depending on where is the VPN server that you are connecting to, your current location will be masked with the VPN server’s location.
- Can a VPN change your GPS? VPN and GPS are two unrelated concepts. The VPN changes your IP address but does nothing about GPS location. If a web app, site, or service is tracking your GPS, it will immediately find the IP address and GPS mismatch.
- Can websites track your IP address? Yes, websites can see your IP address and track it. Your web browser acts as the client and needs the IP to be able to talk to the webserver.
- Does a VPN protect from geolocation? A VPN hides your IP but can’t do anything about the traffic (HTML5 geolocation, for instance) passed by the browser. Avoid web browsers that send geolocation data or at least manually disable it on your browser.
- How to determine geolocation leaks on your browser? Use a service like https://browserleaks.com/geo to test your geolocation API. If it shows your location, protect it by blocking it or spoofing it.
- Can a website track your phone? No website can track your phone unless you enable location sharing while browsing on your phone. When it comes to your phone number, only ISPs and MNOs can keep track of the current location of your phone.