Geolocation: How it works in Vivaldi

Geolocation is a useful thing when you want a website to provide you with a local map, or suggest a nearby restaurant or hotel. How does it work in your desktop browser and what are the privacy implications?

Photo by Artem Bali on Unsplash

Given that most PCs don’t have GPS functionality, have you ever wondered how your browser can locate you so precisely?

Typically, when you pull up a site like Google maps, you give it access to Geolocation information.

In most cases, your location is worked out based on a scan of nearby Wi-Fi access points. All it takes is a scan of what is available and how strong the signal strength is. You do not need login credentials to any network to get your geolocation determined.  

As a side note, the scan will most likely also detect your own private Wi-Fi access point – the one you use at home.  

The list of Wi-Fi access points is then passed back to a location services provider who have built up lists of Wi-Fi access points and their physical location in the real world. Among the best-known location services providers are Google Location Services, Microsoft Location Services, Skyhook, and Mozilla Location Services.

Triangulation against these known locations is performed in combination with their relative signal strength to position you with – in most cases – a pretty good degree of accuracy.

Occasionally, at Vivaldi, we get reports that people show up in a different location relative to another desktop browser they have installed. Usually, this is because the majority of browsers use Google Location Services, while we use Mozilla Location Services.

Sensitive location information

Where you are located on Earth can be pretty sensitive information.

We selected Mozilla Location Services as the provider we had the most faith in handling this particularly sensitive information correctly. It’s also a free service.

The first time you go to a website that requests geolocation information, you’ll see Mozilla Location Services’ terms and conditions. If you agree to these, the service will be activated on a per-site basis.

To check or change your “Location” preference for each site that requires this, click on the padlock icon in the URL field and select “Location”.

Mozilla Location Services collect only information that is strictly needed to provide the service. For example, the service does not collect the SSID name from Wi-Fi networks but collects the BSSID which is often the MAC address of the Wi-Fi device.

With your permission, we pass the location data to Mozilla Location Services. Vivaldi won’t save any location data.

And what about the GPS-based location? Do Mozilla get to see this?

The MLS “Geolocate” API determines the current location based on data provided about nearby Bluetooth, cell or Wi-Fi networks and based on the IP address used to access the service. If you have a device with GPS there is no need for a location services provider because what the provider returns is longitude and latitude – something you already have directly from GPS.

If you’d like more information on this topic or would like to know how to improve MLS/Vivaldi’s accuracy with regards to geolocation, take a look at the blog we’ve linked to.

Main photo by Artem Bali on Unsplash.

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