Your Web Browser Knows Where You Are

September 17, 2009 – 5:17 PM

Allowing your Web browser to determine your physical location opens the door to some seriously nifty features. Some iPhone apps (such as Yelp for iPhone) can help you find nearby restaurants, bookstores, or other places within walking distance, for example. But such functionality, available in the newest Firefox and in Safari on the iPhone, also opens the door to some serious privacy concerns: Where you physically sit or stand at any given moment is deeply personal information that you don’t want to give to just any site. I tried the new features to see how the browsers handle such privacy concerns.

Firefox 3.5 works in conjunction with the Google Location Service. If you visit a site that can use your location, a pop-up bar at the top of the page asks you to allow or block the request. Allow it, and Firefox sends your IP address and data about nearby wireless access points to Google. Clicking the ‘remember’ box tells it not to ask you again for that site. Google then sends Firefox its best guess of your whereabouts, and Firefox sends that data to the requesting site. Google never learns which site wants the info; and though it uses a unique ID tag for your location requests, the tag is randomly assigned and resets every two weeks, so Google has no practical way to associate you with your browser’s where-am-I’s.

You can completely disable Firefox’s location service by typing about:config in the address field and then typing geo.enabled in the filter box. Double-click the setting to change the ‘true’ setting to ‘false’.


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