This Smartphone Tracking Tech Will Give You the Creeps
By Christina DesMarais
Privacy fans, take note: A new technology, called Indoor Positioning System, could push your worry meter to the max. IPS allows pinpoint tracking of any Wi-Fi-enabled device, such as a smartphone or tablet, within a building. This means that an IPS service could easily track you–right down to, say, the table you’re occupying in a mall’s food court–as long as your mobile devices’ Wi-Fi is turned on. And, if you’re a typical device user, your Wi-Fi is always on, right?
In short, we’ve moved far beyond using regular old GPS for location tracking. Indoor environments are challenging for low-cost location systems such as GPS, because the ways in which buildings are constructed–not to mention physical obstacles and even people’s bodies–interfere with GPS’s ability to pinpoint a location.
One example of the new technology is the Navizon Indoor Triangulation Service, which MIT’s Technology Review blog discussed recently. Location services company Navizon says that ITS can provide accurate tracking of Wi-Fi-enabled devices, including smartphones, tablets, and laptops, anywhere inside a building or throughout a campus. (Triangulation by Wi-Fi hotspots helps to make location services more accurate.)
As such services begin to grow, they might threaten your privacy. So, in many instances, if you don’t want an entity knowing the location of your mobile device, you should shut it off or ditch it completely.
At the same time, however, device tracking could become hugely useful to you. Innovators have figured out how to take GPS-like navigation indoors so that people can not only quickly find the restroom in a department store or their departure gate at the airport, but also receive deals and discounts from retailers upon stepping over a shop’s threshold.
Navizon wouldn’t comment for this article, but some of its competitors did. Let’s take a look at other companies working on IPS services.
Skyhook developed the first hybrid location system to use Wi-Fi positioning, GPS, and cell-tower triangulation to determine the coordinates of a device, even indoors. Since then, Apple (Skyhook’s biggest customer) and Google (Skyhook’s biggest competitor) have emulated the hybrid approach for their respective mapping apps.
All sorts of mobile devices on the market–phones, laptops, ebook readers, digital cameras, and gaming devices–are location aware. In many cases, that’s because Skyhook software is baked into them.
For instance, Apple, Dell, and HP laptops use the Skyhook system to change their clocks automatically when users take them across time zones. The laptops also let users pull up real-time information about what’s happening in a neighborhood that they happen to be in, and they can broadcast their location so that users can find them in case of theft.
But what’s really interesting about Skyhook is its ability to profile individual devices–not identifiable people, as CEO Ted Morgan is quick to point out–and know which ones are associated with certain kinds of people. For instance, if Skyhook sees that a device shows up at Wrigley Field four times in a season, it assumes that the person using the laptop is a sports fan. Or if a laptop or smartphone is detected in an airport several times a month, Skyhook guesses that the user is most likely a business traveler.
“Because we’ve been running the location on about 100 million devices for the last four or five years, we have a tremendous amount of knowledge into overall human behavior–about where people are throughout the day, where they go, which street corners are busy, which ones are not at different times of the day,” Morgan says.
Over time, Skyhook also figures out where all these devices live. Then, by mixing into device profiles publicly available data from the U.S. Census, for example, it adds demographic data such as age and ethnicity.
This is a veritable gold mine of data that Skyhook can then package and offer to marketers who want to reach only select segments of consumers, or to developers and device makers who can use the software to deliver highly relevant real-time content to users.
“We’re able to see at an aggregate level what 100,000,000 people are doing, so we can predict what areas of a city are getting busy or less busy, what types of people are in different areas of the city,” Morgan says. “So, if you want to know where to go out in Seattle tonight, I can tell you what the most active street corner is going to be, and I can tell you the high-level breakout of the type of people who will be there, because they’ve done that every Friday night for the last three years.”
So just how does Skyhook do all this profiling of individual devices while maintaining the anonymity of the people using them?
Morgan says that the company does not use device MAC addresses or phone numbers.
“Every time a new phone registers on our system, we give it an ID like a license plate. There’s no way for you to know what it is. There’s no way for anyone to see it. If you were able to look into our system and see what my phone’s ID was, the only thing you’d ever find out about me is that I’m a middle-aged white guy who makes over $100,000,” Morgan says. “It would never say my name. It would never say where I’m from. There’s nothing that could ever figure out the user, and that’s the bar we have for privacy. Nobody could get into our system, even ourselves, to figure out the name of a user.”
Skyhook and Google
The main thing you need to know here is that Skyhook is suing Google currently.
“Google recognized [the value of mapping the country’s Wi-Fi] and decided it wanted to have a similar system, so it copied the model,” says Morgan. “And because Google brings so much else to the table, where it’s giving away things for free [such as] maps and search and email, they became a competitor to us.”
The problem, Morgan says, came about after Skyhook won deals with Motorola and Samsung, and Google forced those companies to back out of their contracts. Google did not respond to a request for comment.
Even so, maps are undeniably a brilliant gem in Google’s crown–its turn-by-turn navigation is something that Android users universally adore. It only makes sense that the company would get involved in IPS services.
In November, Google announced that it was taking Google Maps indoors. Now, if you go to select U.S. shopping malls, airports, and retail locations, or certain Japanese transit stations, you can use your Android mobile device to see where you are. The idea is similar to the physical kiosk maps you see in malls, except this one is on your phone and adds Google’s famous little blue pin so that you can quickly figure out how to get from the shoe department in Macy’s, for example, over to the men’s department.
Google Maps 6.0 for Android updates your location as you move, and it will even refresh the map when you move to a different floor. It also labels all sorts of helpful information, such as bathroom locations, ATMs, and airport gates.
At launch, the application included floor plans for Tokyo’s Narita and 17 U.S. airports; stores of the retail chains Bloomingdales, Home Depot, Ikea, and Macy’s; and malls such as the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, Times Square Mall in Mt. Vernon, Illinois, and Liberty Fair Mall in Martinsville, Virginia.
To enable indoor mapping, Google created a desktop tool that lets venue owners and business owners upload the floor plans of their locations. After doing so, they download an app from Google Play that lets them share publicly broadcast GPS, cell-tower, and Wi-Fi information with Google. With that radio-signal information in hand, Google can allow Android users to track their indoor locations on its maps.
Currently Google isn’t pushing ads, discounts, or offers to consumers who use its IPS service. Since Google makes gobs of money on advertising, however, one can only imagine that we may very well see something like that at some point in the future.
Next Page: IPS Offerings From Wifarer, Nokia, and Broadcom
Wifarer is another company using IPS. Unlike Google, which so far provides only indoor maps and location awareness to users, Wifarer wants to give its users heaps of content, discounts, and deals related to where they are located.
The company says that its service is essentially a private, customized version of Google’s IPS offering that lets venues control the content, the branding, and various ways to make money from their digital space.
The Wifarer software works with Wi-Fi systems that exist in public places such as malls, museums, and airports–that is, any location where it might help you to know your whereabouts so as to better find your way and receive relevant information or offers.
If you have the Wifarer app installed on your Android phone (Apple has yet to allow the app into its ecosystem), the fingerprint radio frequency-based system determines your phone’s position within a few feet of where you’re using it.
Currently beta testing in 25 venues, Wifarer expects to be up and running in 400 additional places by the end of this year.
“One of the things about indoor positioning systems is that they open up a new vein of [intellectual property],” says Wifarer CEO Philip Stanger. That means IPS is seeing a tremendous amount of development; Stanger says that some exciting things will be coming down the pipeline in the next several months to a year.
He won’t divulge what those developments might be, although they could include inventions such as displays that employ augmented reality and are triggered by users’ locations.
Stanger, like many other people in the business of phone-finding technology, maintains that his product keeps user privacy intact.
“Without giving away core IP and proprietary processes, I can say that the app calculates and displays its own positioning and location information entirely from within the app. This occurs when the app is turned on, and only when the app is turned on,” Stanger says. “Upon first download, a new user is given an anonymous user ID, and neither their MAC ID nor their IMEI number is ever recorded, monitored, or tracked. From then on, all transactions with and downloads from our system are identified by this UI (user ID) alone. Occasionally, and only when the app is on, location information of the UI is reported back to the system, mainly to verify positioning accuracy.”
The fact that Wifarer works at all is pretty impressive, considering the technical hurdles involved.
“The challenges are many, but most revolve around the variability of Wi-Fi due to environmental considerations,” Stanger says. “For instance, most Wi-Fi broadcasts at around 2.4GHz. Unfortunately the resonating frequency of water is also 2.4GHz, and people are comprised of mostly water. So, the more that people congregate, the more the Wi-Fi radio patterns vary. So the question becomes, how can we normalize patterns when the very usage we envisage generates disruptions to those patterns?”
Stanger isn’t saying how his company has done it, only that it involves proprietary coding.
Phone maker Nokia is also working on an interesting way to determine location in an indoor environment.
At the Imperial War Museum hangar in Duxford, UK, Nokia recently showed how a radio system box operating in UHF TV bands can connect to a TV white-space database to pinpoint which TV channels are available. From there, a Nokia smartphone can connect to the Internet via the TV white space and use an app to grab content. In the case of the museum demo, the content was information about the planes on display.
This type of arrangement would allow museum visitors, for example, to gain access to a vast amount of information about exhibits depending on where they are standing–far more than the museum could ever include on physical signage.
A similar system could be built out to push content to people in other places, such as retail locations; in this case, shoppers could receive offers and coupons, and participate in loyalty programs, just by walking around with an app on their phones.
That isn’t going to happen overnight, however. Before services can use TV white spaces for location finding and content distribution, the necessary technology–including mass-produced chips inside phones and special wireless access points–must be standardized, which likely won’t occur for at least a few years.
In addition, the system isn’t terribly precise, as the accuracy is good only at 25 feet to 50 feet. “We can use several well-known methods to refine this coarse location, for example taking signal-strength measurements from several access points and then mathematically combining these signals to estimate the location of the phone a bit more accurately,” says Scott Probasco, a senior manager at Nokia.
Before the end of the year, a new chip made by Broadcom, called the BCM4752, will be integrated in certain mobile devices coming to market. Although the company won’t identify the devices, the technology looks to be pretty mind-blowing.
Designed for smartphones, tablets, portable media players, and portable navigation devices, the BCM4752 chip is a Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) product that communicates with the U.S.-based GPS as well as with three of that system’s counterparts–the Russian GLONASS, the in-progress Quasi-Zenith Satellite System (QZSS) in Japan, and SBAS constellations of satellites.
Access to more satellites means better location awareness, but what’s really fascinating about the Broadcom location platform is that, in addition to supporting IPS through Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and NFC, it integrates measurements from device sensors–the accelerometer, gyroscope, magnetometer, and altimeter–into its positioning engine.
Essentially, that means Broadcom’s technology can find your location without being connected to any kind of network. For example, after recording your GNSS coordinates as you enter a building, the technology could continue to track your device’s location simply based on these sensor outputs–how many steps you’ve taken, in what direction you took them, and at what altitude.
According to Scott Pomerantz, GM and VP of Broadcom’s GPS line of business, the technology makes use of intelligent location software known as the Hybrid User Location Application to integrate measurements from GNSS, inertial sensors, its Wi-Fi products, its cellular modem, and many other RF components found in smartphones today.
“We want to be able to do all of the position location locally, not necessarily depending on outside databases or other information; but, just with the device in your hand, we can recognize [the data that is] available and how to render [its] position,” Pomerantz says.
While it’s one thing to have a phone capable of doing incredible things and quite another to build out infrastructure and applications that actually use it, Pomerantz says many location-aware apps will be able to make great use of the BCM4752 chip.
The companies I spoke with represent just a sampling of those carrying out the location tracking of mobile devices. If this topic interests you, check out Polaris Wireless as another example: It provides high-accuracy, software-based systems for finding the location of mobile phones, and it can serve not only for activities like push advertising and social networking but also for asset tracking and fleet tracking, plus lawful interception by government agencies.
How Much Should You Worry About Privacy Issues?
Should it bother you that so many entities can see where you’re using your mobile device, or do features such as vastly improved navigation trump any such privacy concerns?
I posed the question to a couple of experts well versed in the implications of this advanced technology.
Rob Enderle, principal analyst for Enderle Group, sees the tracking of individuals as particularly useful for companies that have high security requirements or have issues with employee theft or time-card cheating. And, he says, when physical danger is an issue, knowing a person’s exact location can mean that help comes faster. “In those instances, when implemented properly, the reward clearly exceeds the risk,” Enderle says.
“The utility and convenience for commercially available location-based services and wireless tracking usage outweigh, at this moment in time, individualistic notions of privacy,” says T. Jeff Vining, VP of government research and geospatial surveillance operational technology for Gartner, a technology research firm. “But when data is aggregated, then it will become a concern for privacy advocates and governments.”
In short, this is a subject you’re going to want to track.