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Can you rely on IP geolocation databases to geolocate routers?

Web Designer
6 minutes
IP geolocation databases are frequently used to geolocate routers, but are they reliable? Here are areas where you should take caution.

IP geolocation databases are frequently used to geolocate routers, but are they reliable? Geolocation databases are run by third-party companies and contain information on the location of a specific IP address. For example, if businesses want to know the city and country of the visitors that frequent their website, they consult the database (via the country locator plugin) to find the specific location of the visitor. Consulting a database is one of the few ways businesses gain a better understanding of their customer base, so it is important to be sure if the database is reliable enough to geolocate routers.

Are IP geolocation databases reliable?

When it comes to IP geolocation databases, there have been many tests conducted on end-host addresses. However, there has been little attention given to infrastructure IP addresses, like router interfaces. To test the accuracy of geolocation IP addresses, a sample of IP addresses was compared using a ground truth set of several IP addresses and locations at the city level. These studies showed that some of the most prominent IP databases have low accuracy at a country-level. While some databases are more accurate than others, most IP databases struggle with generating accurate readings at the country-level when geolocating routers. Compounding the matter is the fact that accuracy varies significantly between countries. When it comes to geolocating routers at the city-level, experiments indicate that most IP databases have both low coverage and low accuracy. 

Why is accuracy low when geolocating routers?

There are several reasons why an IP geolocation database struggles to geolocate routers accurately. Most databases draw their information from different sources like registry data and airport codes. However, if the data from these sources is inaccurate, then the IP database is not going to be accurate. The problem is further compounded by the lack of a publicly available dataset that can reliably tie IP addresses to physical locations.

There is also the issue of naming conventions. Large metropolitan areas often use airport codes tied to a city or state. While the airport codes provide some information, they are generally not sufficient for tracking routers. Furthermore, there is also the question of consistency across providers. Different providers have their unique naming conventions within hostnames, which means interpretation of hostnames needs to be reviewed on a provider by provider basis before incorporating the information into the geolocation database. Naturally, this compromises the accuracy of the database when geotracking a router.

Geolocating routers via a geolocation database requires a lot of measurement tools like tracerouting, widgets and pings to trace IP addresses. However, there is a lot of room for measurements to go wrong. Even if the business is using a satellite internet provider, locating routers is still challenging because the satellites cover massive geographical areas.

In addition to geographical areas, users themselves might prevent their IP address from being tracked. Users can hide their real address using VPNs, proxy servers and relay networks, which makes it even more difficult to accurately geolocate a router because the IP address is effectively hidden. There are several reasons why users might want to disguise their IP address. For example, they want to access media content not available in their region.

What can businesses do to geolocate routers?

Businesses have few alternatives when it comes to geolocating the routers of their potential customer base. While IP geolocation databases are not perfect, they are the best solution available. Hence, when using databases, businesses should be aware of their shortcomings and pay attention to accuracy claims, coverage and default locations. Many geolocation IP databases claim high accuracy levels ranging from 85% to 99%, which businesses need to validate before using the database.

As a rule of thumb, city-level accuracy tends to be lower than the state or country level. In terms of coverage, it means considering IP address space for location against the percentage of routable addresses. Businesses should be using databases that cover a wide area. There is also the issue of default locations because IP service providers rely on GPS coordinates, which are not always accurate because they work by mapping a general location in the geography.

IP geolocation databases are not perfect for geo-routing routers, but by accounting for and working around their weaknesses, businesses can get an estimate of their location.

Larissa Yost
12th February 2020
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