Geolocation is a general term used to describe the ability to find an object's physical location in the world. Examples of objects with trackable location information include cell phones, global positioning system (GPS) devices, and computers with active Internet connections. Geolocation technologies can be used to find missing persons, gather web user information, or record one's personal location on social networking sites. Social networking sites that use geolocation technology include Foursquare and whrrl.
Internet-connected computers can often be located through their Internet protocol (IP) addresses. An IP address is a numerical code that often identifies a user's Internet service provider (ISP) and his location and may also identify him to his ISP. Users wishing to increase Internet privacy and reduce the chance of being geolocated by IP can use a proxy to navigate the web. A proxy server is a hardware device or software program that redirects Internet requests, supplying different IP and computer information than that which would otherwise be broadcast by a computer.
Credit card use can be tracked as a form of geolocation. When a person goes missing and his credit cards show activity in a certain area, authorities often focus search efforts and look for clues at the locations where the card was accessed. This technology can also be used to track the activity of purchases made on stolen credit cards.
In emergencies requiring rescue, a hiker can use geolocation software on a cell phone to transmit her location to emergency services. If a hiker gets lost, geolocation can sometimes help find the hiker through her phone, using geolocating technology that can assist in tracking the path of the missing hiker. Some models of phones can be activated for geolocation purposes even if they are not turned on.
Though geolocating can be helpful in many cases, it also comes with its problems. Most types of geolocation technology are considered to be slightly inaccurate with regard to pinpointing location. These devices will often track a user's general location, but the margin of error can range from around 328 feet (100 meters) to 1.5 miles (2.4 kilometers), which can complicate finding geolocated distress signals. Factors that can affect the accuracy of geolocating include atmospheric conditions, radio interference and poor signal quality. Poor signal quality in a GPS system can occur as a result of a lack of available satellite connections, especially if the user is in a remote location that might be out of range of the usual satellite coverage area.