Michael Horowitz
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A new aspect of Google's spying

Created: February 16, 2024
Updated: Feb 17, 18, 19, 20 2024

Not long ago my wife started to complain that her Android phone was showing the temperature in Celsius rather than Fahrenheit on the home screen. Though she spent a lifetime working with computers, she never focused on Android at all, so it was easy to assume she had clicked on something by mistake. We fixed it briefly, but it happened again. Still, this was too minor a thing for me to focus on.

But then, something strange happened on my Windows computer - a Google search turned up results for the UK rather than US (where I live). After some digging, the full details of which are below, it turns out both devices were suffering from the same issue.

Google wrongly thinks that the public IP address of my home is in London.

NOTE: Every device that is directly connected to the Internet is assigned a unique number. Computer nerds call this number an IP address. In our homes, the only device that is directly connected to the Internet is the router, and the router has one public IP address that all the devices in your home share. This public IP address is not a secret, it is revealed to every website you visit and every email server that provides email. In fact, it is how a website knows where to send the page you requested. Advanced techie details of about IP addresses can be found on here on my RouterSecurity.org site.

How did Google come to this conclusion? Lots of people complain that Google thinks they are in a different country. The suggested solutions that I have seen assume that the problem is either in the operating system, the web browser or the Google account. My debugging steps, detailed below, prove that it was not any of these things.

In my case, the issue was Google spying on my wife, who uses the Chrome browser in Windows without the benefit of a VPN or Tor.

We are planning a trip to London, and, as such, my wife has done a ton of research into London hotels, sights, hotels, theaters, hotels, airfares, etc.

Google has seen this torrent of British activity and flagged our public IP address as British.

They created a profile in the Google Cloud of our IP address. The problem was not in my home. No click-here, type-this solution will fix it. I can take steps on the assorted devices in my home to mask the problem, but not to fix it.

I believe this is a new thing. My (brief) research on this issue has turned up nothing about this type of profiling.

THE DEBUGGING TRAIL

I missed the bigger picture at first. My wife's initial complaint was that the temperature on her Android phone was displaying in Celsius. Neither of us have any experience converting Celsius to Fahrenheit, so the fact that the temperature was not for our city, was missed. Also, my near-constant use of a VPN hid the issue from me. It was all too easy to assume that the only problem was with my wife's Android phone.

The first sign of trouble on my Windows computer was a search for a refurbished iPhone. The merchants in the search result were in England and the prices were in British pounds. Mistakenly, I had done the search with my VPN off (I have to disable my VPN to access a network printer or a NAS in my home, as they are in different VLANs). This got my attention.

I was surprised to have a problem on my computer because my Defensive Computing is reasonably good.

Turns out, my computer was an innocent victim.

GEOLOCATION

My first guess was that the Internet was configured wrong. There are assorted databases that track the physical location of public IP addresses. I query them often, as they are the first step in insuring that a VPN connection has been made correctly. Just last year, at a Google Support Forum, a Platinum Product Expert said this was the problem when someone else had a similar issue. See Why does Google think I am in the wrong country?.

A Google search for "weather" done in the US
A Google search for "weather" done in the US

I tested my Public IP address (with VPNs off) at the websites below and they all reported the correct US city.

https://www.ip2location.com
https://www.iplocation.net
https://ipinfo.io
https://www.ipaddress.com
https://ip-api.com
https://browserleaks.com/ip
https://dnschecker.org/ip-location.php
https://www.whatismyip.com
https://ipx.ac

Some VPN providers also report the physical location of a public IP address. I tested at all the below pages, and, they too, reported the correct US city. Nothing in the UK.

https://mullvad.net/en
https://www.dnsleaktest.com
https://www.expressvpn.com/what-is-my-ip
https://www.tunnelbear.com/whats-my-ip
https://surfshark.com/what-is-my-ip
https://nordvpn.com/what-is-my-ip

NARROWING THINGS DOWN

My search for a used iPhone was done in Firefox which uses Google for search results. The same search on my computer in Brave, which uses its own search engine, returned US-based merchants and prices in US dollars. When I went to google.com in Brave, I was back to British pounds and British merchants. Aha!

My wife's Windows computer also thought it was in the UK. A search for "refurbished iphone" there showed British merchants. A search in the Chrome address bar for "weather" showed the temperature in London. But the same searches, on the same computer, in the Brave browser showed US-based results.

Requests to Google are treated as if we were in London, everything else is treated as if we were in the US.

Next up, my Android phone where the Location feature is normally OFF. When my phone is connected to Wi-Fi, it shows the temperature in London on the home page (this is in the At-a-glance app). When the phone is connected to 5G, it shows the correct local temperature.

That is now four devices and two operating systems.

For a fifth device, I used a Chromebook and a third Google account (neither mine nor wife's). Again, there were British search results and a search for "weather" returned the temperature in London.

I also tested using the Chromebook in Guest mode, which has no associated Google account at all. Again, British search results and London weather.

Next up, a Wi-Fi only iPad. The results were the same as on my wife's Windows computer. Searching for "weather" in the Brave browser, showed the local weather. Going to google.com in Brave, and searching for "weather", showed the temperature in London.

The only thing that all these devices shared, was a public IP address. And the only reason that Google would think this IP address was in the UK, is the research we have done for our upcoming trip to London.

Further proof that the public IP address is the issue, is that when a device is connected to a VPN server in the US, all is well. No British weather, and no British search results.

Down the rabbit hole:

LONDON CALLING

Normally the spying that companies do on our online activity is invisible. We can't see it, touch it, hear it or smell it. Not this time. This time, the result of Google's spying on the Internet activity in my home was right in our face.

There have been a number of articles in the last few years that argue there is no need for a VPN any more because almost every website uses encrypted HTTPS communication. This argument ignores the new public IP address that a VPN (and Tor) provide. New York Times? I'm looking at you. This Vice article, You Probably Don't Need a VPN, does not even mention the new IP address that a VPN provides.

What to do about this? I don't have a great answer, other than VPN, VPN, VPN. I could power cycle my modem in the hope that my ISP will assign me a new public IP address, but that would be cruel to their next customer. For my wife, I will change her Chrome browser to do searches at DuckDuckGo rather than Google.

I could, in theory, patch over the problem with a setting or two in Google Search or in my wife's Google account. I say "in theory" because changing a number of location/region related settings (precise location, default region, web history tracking, etc) did nothing to get her Google searches back to the US. And, even if some bunch of settings works, that only applies to one computer or one Google account, not to all the devices in my home. This experience has left a bad taste in my mouth, so I'd rather she use an alternate search engine. We'll see.

If you don't experience this are you better off than me? Probably not. This may indicate that your copy of the Chrome browser is allowed by the host operating system to learn the location of the device. An operating system that supports GPS-based location always knows where it is (if the feature is ON). Likewise, an operating system using Wi-Fi can also tell where it is by querying the nearby Wi-Fi networks (SSIDs). IP address? We don't need no stinking IP address. :-)

My Windows computer, and that of my wife, use Ethernet so no software on the machines can scan for local Wi-Fi networks and use that information to locate us. Our phones are configured for Defensive Computing, so access to Location information is restricted. We are all being spied on, it just might not be as obvious if software in your home is better able to determine its location.

FYI

You can report errors with IP addresses to Google. But, I suspect this exists to correct the geolocation databases, not their own spying. And, there are at least three different URLs for this, which does not inspire confidence.

https://support.google.com/websearch/contact/ip
https://support.google.com/websearch/workflow/9308722
https://support.google.com/websearch/workflow/9308722?visit_id=638437859111012854-3822536306&rd=1

Still, I tried. At one of the links above, you have to login to a Gmail account and provide the public IP address. That's it. No explanation is allowed. No feedback will be provided (they state this explicitly). This really feels like a "geolocation database correction" thing, not a "You spied on me wrong" thing.

There is no way to know if this did anything. It could be that the Intern in charge of IP addresses went back to school and these notices are sitting in a bit bucket. However, a few days after reporting my public IP address as trouble, I tested with a Chromebook in Guest mode (because it is not tied to any Google account and should have no stored history) and it could not determine its location. Progress?

This Google article: Understand & manage your location when you search on Google says nothing about profiling an IP address based on activity. It does say: "If your IP address was used to estimate your current general area for your search, the location information at the bottom of the search results page will say From your internet address." Good to know.

This Google article: How IP addresses work on Google also says nothing about the profiling of an IP address based on activity seen from it.

 

 

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