The Good (and Not So Good) of Geolocators
There are benefits and drawbacks to tracking technology
For most people, keeping their location secret, if they are using any type of internet connected device, is nearly impossible. In addition to GPS, which can track a person using a device to within a few feet of their location, there are geolocators pinging off your computer’s Internet Protocol (IP) address, and other locating technologies. While there are some serious privacy considerations, geolocators also are used for security to keep your information and bank account safe, discover relevant shopping information, useful wayfinding purposes and more.
What is geolocation?
Geolocation is identification or estimation of the real-world geographic location of an object.
Mobile and other devices have built-in Global Positioning Systems (GPS) to accurately show where the device, and the user of the device, are located. GPS uses a network of satellites owned by the U.S. government. Most, if not all of the apps on your phone have GPS capability and will ask your permission to use your location data. Although many people will disable this feature in some of their apps, there are a few usually left active, such as web browsers, maps and weather apps.
Any other device that is connected to the internet, such as a home computer, can also be tracked. The computer is associated with a geographic location based on the IP address; a numerical identification assigned to each device within an internet provider’s network. The IP address provides a general location only, typically within the user’s zip code.
Other methods for geolocation include roughly determining location by synching up with cell towers that a mobile device is near, or locally using RF signals by attaching radio-frequency identification tags to physical items.
Who can access geolocation services?
Anyone, including an individual or business, can use geolocation services. There are a few free tools out there, but to get accurate results most pay for the service. Companies buy a subscription for ongoing services or an API, which can vary widely depending on need.
Geolocation services have access to a number of different databases that give them the information needed to locate someone online by using easily accessed information such as their email address, IP address or phone. With one of these pieces of information, other data can be “mined.”
How Geolocation Services Help
Geolocation services have many benefits to the companies that deploy them, and to customers. Many of the applications involve avoiding fraud by matching up the geolocation of the person ordering an item or service with the delivery address. If an item is ordered from the U.S. but is being shipped to Indonesia, that will likely ring alarm bells and trigger further verification.
Here are how some industries are using geolocation:
+ Banks use geolocation services to help prevent security breaches such as money laundering and phishing attacks.
+ IP address geolocation is also used in online fraud detection, verifying the account holder’s location information before an order is placed.
+ Divisions of law enforcement will use geolocation to track online financial transactions to prevent money laundering. Investigative agencies will use geolocation to monitor online activity such as human trafficking, doing business with suspected terrorist organizations, or dealing online with banned nations. When suspected activity is found, geolocation services can also protect banks by sending alerts that prevent the transfer of funds for illegal purposes.
+ Search parties can use geolocation data from a smartphone to find a missing person, or track their last whereabouts.
+ Dating apps use the technology to connect people in a close geographic location.
+ Supermarket customers can easily navigate smart stores using radio frequency ID technology. Retailers can also manage and track inventory by using RFID tags on products and shelves, knowing when to restock or reorder items.
Geolocation for marketing
Probably the geolocation services consumers are most aware of is for marketing purposes. Using data to learn about potential customers, marketers are able to offer up tailored promotions, discounts and relevant content.
On a computer, this means products, services and deals in the user’s local area. A company with stores only on the East Coast can avoid ad placement for customers on the West Coast, saving on ad spend.
For mobile users, geolocators can detect when customers are nearby and offer up timely promotions. If the business has their own shopping app, brands can continue to use tracking data in-store, presenting special promotions as a shopper nears a display. The technology can also detect things such as when a customer is within a certain distance of a competitor’s business, and offer up alternative shopping options.
There is no escape from viewing marketing messages, but since they are a part of our online experience, it is helpful when they are more relevant to our interests.
The downside of geolocation technology
Geolocation data gathers extensive details about our lives, where we go (like to court or doctor appointments), what we buy and friends we visit. Since the technology is easily accessible, it has been used for bad purposes such as domestic abuse, stalking, theft and discrimination. Current legal protections under privacy laws are limited.
If you are concerned about your privacy, you should take steps to opt out of geolocation tracking and implement in-private browsing. It is very difficult, however, to be totally anonymous in our internet connected world.
As Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito was quoted as saying: “Even if the public does not welcome the diminution of privacy that new technology entails, they may eventually reconcile themselves to this development as inevitable.”
The future of geolocation services
Although geolocation applications started surfacing in 2005, the technology is still in its infancy. With geolocation services dramatically increasing sales, and being a major player in fraud protection, crime prevention and other useful purposes, expect the technology to continue to expand rapidly. Hopefully, legal protections for our privacy will grow along with it.