In the real world it’s relatively simple to translate a physical address into an exact physical location. This is because all the essential information is actually contained in the address itself, and most of it’s unlikely to change. This is not the case on the internet however as IP addresses unlike physical ones have no registered association with a physical location. What’s more the actual physical address can change over time, moving from device to device and location to location.
Yet we’ve all seen companies and web sites determine our location automatically. We’ve also probably seen those TV shows where the Forensics team swoop down on the criminals home based simply on their IP address. The practice is referred to as ‘IP Geolocation’ and has been slowly developing over the last two decades as a method of associating IP addresses (both IPv4 and IPv6) with actual physical locations. On the most basic level this includes mapping the IP addresses to continents, countries and cities, then expanding to Zip/postal codes, time zones, connection types and other information too.
The accuracy of much of the current IP Geolocation information currently varies greatly. It’s certainly isn’t anywhere near as reliable and accurate as the CSI team make out when they tap the criminals IP address into their database. However the information is extensively used throughout the internet by all sorts of business and Government organisations.
What do People Use IP Geolocation Information For?
The primary users of IP Geolocation are businesses who operate online particularly things like e-commerce sites and online video providers. The information can be used for customizing sites and messages plus providing analytics on where customers and visitors originate from.
It can be a powerful tool for customizing offers and websites for marketing purposes. There are many companies who place great value on having access to geolocation information.
It’s not always used for marketing purposes though, there are lots of other uses. Many e-commerce sites and online banking solution use the information to improve security and prevent fraudulent transactions. For example if you’re a UK customer using your credit card as normal, when suddenly transactions start appearing simultaneously from Brazil it’s likely that these are fraudulent.
Other companies simply use it for administration purposes to apply shipping cost or local tax estimates based on your location. The classified company – Craigslist uses this method to enforce it’s policy that you can only use the directory local to you. Some companies use the information to restrict access to protect licensing agreements. Netflix relies heavily on this information for these purposes routing people to the correct locale version based on their actual location.
Outside the commercial world enterprises use the information to deploy servers or upgrade infrastructure. Many researchers and investigators analyse the information to monitor political or criminal operations.
The Problems of Inaccurate Geolocation Data
There are lots of providers of this location data and the quality varies. It’s certainly not perfect and inaccurate data can create all sorts of problems for lots of sectors.
- Inability to access content – blocked from accessing content that should be available. For example some people have problems accessing the BBC if they’re IP address is incorrectly classified as from outside the UK.
- Poor Customer Experience – faulty information could give you the wrong language on a website or perhaps bill you in the wrong currency.
- Failed Marketing Campaigns – offering irrelevant or inappropriate offers or advertisements. Something like a South Wales electrician offering their services to users based in Germany, which is unlikely to be successful.
Where Does IP Geolocation Come From?
All the world’s accurate IP location information sits in a handful of databases which have been compiled over the last few years. These have been produced by several commercial providers who all use slightly different methods for creating these databases. However there are certain common techniques which are used by most companies to create and update their IP Geolocation databases.
Mining Registry Data – this forms the fundamental basis of most location databases. When an IP address is assigned or allocated to an organization, the registrants names and addresses will be associated with the record. The is usually sufficient to provide a country based code for each recorded IP address.
Device Codes – Most devices connected to the internet has a host name which normally conform to specific naming conventions. These will often provide extensive clues to where the device is specifically located.
Browser Location API – W3C (world Wide Web Consortium) has created a specification of an API to provide scripted access to geographical location information on any network enabled device. Commonly seen on Apps which ask the user for permission to share or record their location. This location information can then be associated with the PP address.
Co-operation – sometimes IP location services simply work with customers and/or partners to match user supplied physical addresses with IP addresses.
Exploiting the Weaknesses Of IP Geolocation
You can look at these databases in different ways perhaps as some useful business tool or a method to track, monitor and control people who use the internet. Some websites will simply use your location to change the language or slightly personalize their website. However many more will block and filter or perhaps simply use the information to maximise their profits by charging different prices to people.
For internet marketers they are useful from both sides, targeting sales or advertising campaigns based on geographical location is obviously useful. However being restricted from advertising directories or e-commerce sites simply restricts options on a supposedly global platform.
Yet anyone who has had problems being blocked should realise that currently the technology is far from foolproof. Basically your location is determined by a simple lookup of your connecting IP address in a large flat geographical database. The important point to remember is that if you control the IP address that is seen, you effectively open up the internet once again – removing any restrictions based on location.
Ultimately Geolocation is simply database mapping IP address to location
The method of doing this involves routing your internet connection, browser or software through a third party server. These are usually either VPN or proxy servers and the crucial element to remember that any geolocation lookup is based on the IP address of that server. So an Indian marketer connecting through a British Proxy would appear to be based in the UK.
So marketers can use any version of Craigslist if they have a proxy in the right location. People who run their businesses around the directory will therefore have lots of these to allow access to all the directories. Online businesses who buy and sell from e-commerce sites will have proxies in the correct location too ideally situated near the target servers.
Remember you can protect your privacy and control the impact geolocation has on your business by simply using proxies in different countries.