There is little doubt that threats to our privacy are on the rise. The growth of technology has proved to be an ever-present burgeoning danger to our personal security and the security of our data.
While this is true, the same technologies that threaten our privacy can also be used to protect us. This brings us to geofencing.
In simple terms, geofencing uses GPS technology or an RFID tag to mark geographical borders for a specific purpose. For example, in the popular mobile game Pokémon Go, users can interact with parts of the game only if they are within a certain distance from a physical location. This feature uses geofencing to create a virtual barrier which players must cross for the interaction option to become available.
This example of geofencing is fairly neutral, but there are other applications of geofencing which can threaten your privacy.
For instance, retail spaces like shopping malls, when a person crosses a virtual barrier around a specific storefront, ads or special offers may be displayed on their smartphone for the store that’s near. This invades your privacy as it alerts stores to your location and feeds you marketing content that you did not request.
Geofencing may also be used to pattern your behavior for future advertisements or to collect personal data that you may be actively working to keep private. For example, if you regularly cross the virtual barrier around certain clubs or bars, this may provide information about your sexual orientation. Geofencing around the office of a medical specialist may indicate that you or someone you know has a particular disorder or disease, while geofence around a place of worship may imply your religious beliefs.
While there are some negative uses of geofencing, there are also some positive ones. As our goal is not to fear monger or paint geofencing as an indicator of a fast-approaching dystopian future, the positive uses of geofencing will be discussed in greater detail than the negatives.
The reality is that geofencing possesses greater advantages than disadvantages when used to protect privacy and keep the general public safe.
Using Geofencing to Create No-Fly Zones
Using geofencing, individuals can manage where drones are allowed to fly. Drones, due to their ease of use and their broad range of applications, have continued to grow in popularity.
They can be used by realtors looking to get aerial shots of a property to make it more enticing to potential buyers. Farmers can use drones to keep track of their crops without harming them by having to drive a tractor through their fields. Even Amazon is using drones to allow for faster deliveries carried out by the unmanned flying vehicles.
Aside from professionals or businesses, there are also hobbyists who use drones simply because they enjoy flying them or enjoy aerial photography. This growing pastime has allowed drones to become very easy to obtain. The ease of access has the consequence of occasionally allowing drones to fall into the hands of someone who plans to use them to infringe on others’ right to privacy and safety.
In the U.S., the Federal Aviation Administration (or FAA) uses geofencing to create no-fly zones for drones. These commonly exist around airports, military bases and sporting events. The entirety of Washington, D.C. is also considered a no-fly zone for drones. Areas where drones are not allowed in the U.S. as well as in other countries are mapped out and can be easily found using one of several apps, some of which are specific to certain countries.
A service that allowed individuals to use geofencing to create no-fly zones for drones was NoFlyZone, which has now been discontinued. NoFlyZone allowed users to protect their privacy from drones by creating no-fly zones around their property. While NoFlyZone no longer exists, it is possible that as the popularity of drones continues to grow, another service will come along that allows individuals to use geofencing to protect their privacy with custom no-fly zones.
Using Geofencing to Protect Images on Flickr
Photo sharing, while it has become more popular with the rise of apps like Instagram, has been around for quite some time. As more photos were shared, the awareness for the need for privacy became apparent.
In the interest of protecting the privacy of their users, photo-sharing site Flickr introduced a geofencing system in 2011.
This feature allows users to manage the privacy of their photos. In addition to being able to tag the location where the photo was taken, they can also make the image viewable only by people with a certain area surrounded by a geofence.
If they only want people who live in their hometown to see their photos, they can use geofencing to achieve that goal. They can also make sure a person or group located in a specific area is unable to view their pictures.
Using Geofencing to Thwart Thieves
In the modern world of readily available Wi-Fi and the growing number of work-from-anywhere jobs, more and more people are conducting business in public settings. While there are some positives to this, one negative is that these public settings increase the likelihood of your smartphone being stolen. This threat can be managed, however, using geofencing.
Internet security company Avast has an Android and iOS app called Avast Mobile Security that, along with other internet security features, has an anti-theft feature. Similar technology is also available with the Prey app. Both of these apps offer free and paid versions.
Both of these apps work in similar ways. Once you’ve established your work area, you can activate the app and create a geofence around yourself. If your phone crosses the virtual barrier you’ve defined, an alarm will sound—drawing your attention and the attention of others to the would-be thief.
Geofencing clearly has both positive and negative sides. It can be used to expose secret parts of our lives, but can also be used to protect us and our belongings. Virtual borders around stores can be used to deliver location-specific ads, which infringe upon our right to privacy, but they can also remind us to stop in and pick up something we need or use a coupon when we make our purchase. Geofences can be used to deter theft, but can also be used to track us as we follow our daily routines.
The reality is that geofencing, like most technologies, can be beneficial or harmful depending on who put the geofence in place. As the usage of geofencing grows alongside the increasing concern for data security, it’s likely that the two will continue to butt heads and work together just as they do now.
What’s important is to be aware of geofencing, how it affects your privacy and how you can use it to protect yourself, your belongings and your personal information.