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September 10, 2012 10:36 AM   Subscribe

Geolocation. Does the internet know where I am? Can anyone get my whereabouts from my IP address?

Curiosity got the better of me recently and I ventured into the nightmare of genitalia that is chat roulette.

Now, I got chatting to someone who got me a little freaked out. We were having a completely random conversation about ninjas and geese but they seemed to know a lot of particular details about where I live and wouldn't let up on how they knew.

I googled geolocation and found this site, htmldemos.com and... well, blimey... it knows exactly where I am. Down to the square metre! WTF?

How the hell does that work? Can anyone on chatroulette geolocate anyone they're chatting with? More importantly, can anyone on the internet find my real world location?

Is the internet coming round to my place to steal all my stuff? Should I buy better locks? What are the implications for house insurance?
posted by run"monty to Computers & Internet (8 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I assume you're talking about this site. When I went to it, it asked if I wanted to share my location information. I clicked no and it has no idea where I am. It does this via location-aware browsing.

Your ISP likely allocates IP addresses based on location. This will usually be accurate down to the city you're in, but no further. If you opt to share your location info on a site like the one you linked, that's different as it uses a combination of a lot of different info, including nearby wireless networks, but that information won't be available based only on your IP.

If chatroulette gives you the other person's IP (I imagine it does), then the other person probably just did a whois and saw the city your IP is in. They can't really do more than that.

Having said that, there is of course detective work a person could do based on available information, and that really depends on what's available and who wants to know. But in terms of the danger posed by random people on ChatRoulette, you don't have much to worry about.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 10:55 AM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

In short, nope. The longer story:

IP-based geolocation doesn't require any permission, since your IP is visible to everyone on the internet. However, your IP isn't necessarily tied with you - if you want to be mysterious, you can easily use a web proxy and get a different IP, in a different part of the world.

HTML5 Geolocation (the new stuff) is based on a number of factors - local wifi points, your actual network, etc. But the only way to get to it is through a Javascript API which will always pop up a dialog like 'Do you want to share your location?'. All browsers have this dialog, and you can always click no, and refuse to share your location.

If you click yes, then that means you trust the site, since it's easy for that site to then store, retransmit, bomb, etc., that location.
posted by tmcw at 11:01 AM on September 10, 2012

Good answer from FAMOUS MONSTER.

Info based on IP is notoriously inexact- back in the day I would see an inordinate amount of site visitors that supposedly lived in Northern Virginia, since that was where AOL was headquartered.

Note that many sites use your location in a basic way to, for example, choose which language to default to. I was once using a Proxy server service to fake my IP (another reason info from IP addresses isn't always that accurate), and noticed sites like Google were suddenly speaking to me in German!
posted by drjimmy11 at 11:03 AM on September 10, 2012

If you have sent email from that IP to a mailing list or public group, and you have a static address or one that doesn't change often, it is possible for a motivated person to attempt to connect your IP address to your online identity.

Do a web search on your IP address and see what comes up.
posted by zippy at 11:03 AM on September 10, 2012

Was your webcam on? Was there anything in the background that might point to a specific location? Do you have a micro-regional accent? Radio playing in the background with a station break? Anything like that? I've successfully identified an anonymous blogger's location by noticing his building's concierge number on a piece of paper in the background of a photo of the dinner he was making, for example.

Opt-in html5 geolocation identifies my location to within about a mile when I'm at work, and is accurate to within a block or two when I'm at home. IP-based geolocation will get you the city I live in, but I don't know if chatroulette exposes that. I'd be somewhat surprised if it did.
posted by hades at 11:03 AM on September 10, 2012

If you're on Chatroulette people will know your IP and can simply enter it in any IP geolocation service to know which country and area you live in. They cannot, however, get your exact position/address like the HTML5 Demos page you mention since HTML5 geolocation is always an opt-in option managed by your browser and not the site you visit.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 11:12 AM on September 10, 2012

They can also extrapolate information if one of your neighbors DID opt in, even if you didn't based on your IP subnet and the various routers that the data passes through.
posted by gjc at 5:15 PM on September 10, 2012

I tried that site and it was close, but out by around a mile. So I guess it depends on how your network is set up.
posted by KateViolet at 4:56 AM on September 11, 2012

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