Take a Quick Test – Does Your Browser Know Where You Are?

You *are* being followed. Not just by the NSA, but also by your browser. Here’s a quick test to show a bit about how much your browser knows about you: enter these two words into your search engine “local news”. If your browser has no idea who you are, the list of results should be random. If not, the results will be very location-specific, suggesting web sites with news about where you’re sitting.

I ran three tests with this search term. I looked up the URLs and mapped out the location for the “Local News” that was in the top 10 or so entries. (e.g., ABC News in Chicago came up as one of my entries).

  • Google Search from a regular internet connection (Green Arrows). The bundle of green arrows in the NY/NJ area show that Google seems to know where I’m sitting.
  • Google Search from behind our corporate firewall (Blue Arrows). This shows that Google thinks I’m sitting somewhere near Chicago, which is near our corporate gateway. Most corporations funnel traffic out to the internet, so it’s not as straightforward for browser applications to figure out where the user is located. Many tools are available to non-corporate users that provide a proxying service, yielding similar results.
  • Search using a tool that provides some measure of obscurity. (Orange Arrows) The random disbursement implies that the search tool has little information about my location.

There are benefits to location-awareness. For example, if you’re searching for a place to eat, a location-aware browser could first list those restaurants closest to you.

It’s also very useful when you want to speak with someone at a company via their contact center. If you click on a 1-800 number about repairs for your washing machine, location awareness helps the agent find you the closest service shop. Or if you click-to-call a store’s help desk from your cell phone while standing inside that store, you could be given priority over another call that was received earlier but was not placed from that store. Contact centers had in the past used the caller’s phone number to help identify location, but with the proliferation of cell phones and mobile users, the number by itself is no longer useful. If the user launches a communication from a web page where the caller’s IP Address is available, though, geolocation becomes more viable. Both public and commercial Geolocation services are available to support this.

So this quick test shows how you show on the internet up via a Geolocation service. If you want to be serviced better, allowing location information will help. And, if you don’t, secure browsers provide some measure of obscurity.