Select your localized edition:

Close ×

More Ways to Connect

Discover one of our 28 local entrepreneurial communities »

Be the first to know as we launch in new countries and markets around the globe.

Interested in bringing MIT Technology Review to your local market?

MIT Technology ReviewMIT Technology Review - logo

 

Unsupported browser: Your browser does not meet modern web standards. See how it scores »

Location services company Navizon has a new system, called Navizon I.T.S., that could allow tracking of visitors in malls, museums, offices, factories, secured areas and just about any other indoor space. It could be used to examine patterns of foot traffic in retail spaces, assure that a museum is empty of visitors at closing time, or even to pinpoint the location of any individual registered with the system. But let’s set all that aside for a minute while we freak out about the privacy implications.

Most of us leave Wi-Fi on by default, in part because our phones chastise us when we don’t. (Triangulation by Wi-Fi hotspots is important for making location services more accurate.) But you probably didn’t realize that, using proprietary new “nodes” from Navizon, any device with an active Wi-Fi radio can be seen by a system like Navizon’s.

To demonstrate the technology, here’s Navizon CEO and founder Cyril Houri hunting for one of his colleagues at a trade show using a kind of first person shooter-esque radar.

And here’s a website set up by Navizon to anonymously log the devices of pedestrians who walk by its offices in Miami Beach, FL.

Real-time data (and webcam) from Navizon’s listening station at its offices

Finally, here’s a promo video that lays out the workings of the technology fairly succinctly, starting at 1:40.

It’s important to note that the technology is inherently (somewhat) anonymous. Navizon’s system can determine where you are, but not necessarily who you are, since all it sees is a Wi-Fi radio.

However, because each device has a unique signature, Navizon’s system does know whether you’ve been in a place before. This could be used for security – is someone showing up in the same place over and over again, possibly casing the joint? – or by a retailer who wants to track repeat customers.

In addition, Navizon also has the ability to assign real identifying information to a device, but it’s a process that could hardly occur without your knowledge. Here’s Houri again, demonstrating the capability.

This might be useful in, for example, a hospital that wants to know where a given medical staffer is at any given moment.

Navizon I.T.S. isn’t just useful for the owner of the system – using custom floor layouts or the indoor portions of Google Maps, it can help people precisely locate themselves within buildings, much like the Bluetooth beacon system proposed for use in concert with Broadcom’s new GPS chip.

Navizon’s technology is also reminiscent of the location data provided to retailers and marketers by Skyhook’s Spotrank system, which has a different set of pros and cons: That data is available for every point on the planet, but it only includes devices running Skyhook software.

The rollout of this technology means there are now at least three ways that users can track their locations indoors, where GPS is generally useless – bluetooth beacon, Spotrank (and proprietary vendor) databases of Wi-Fi hotspots, and Navizon’s I.T.S. nodes. It also marks the second way (that I know of) for you to be tracked via the location of your phone, whether you want to be or not. (The first requires access to your cell phone carrier, and is used for example to locate your position when you make a 911 call.)

It shouldn’t be surprising that carrying around a little RF transmitter in your pocket makes you visible to all sorts of tracking technology. Maybe it’s simply the (inevitable) commercialization of this fact that is somehow unnerving.

 Follow @Mims or get in touch

30 comments. Share your thoughts »

Tagged: Communications, mobile, privacy, mobile devices, Wi-Fi, geolocation, location services

Reprints and Permissions | Send feedback to the editor

From the Archives

Close

Introducing MIT Technology Review Insider.

Already a Magazine subscriber?

You're automatically an Insider. It's easy to activate or upgrade your account.

Activate Your Account

Become an Insider

It's the new way to subscribe. Get even more of the tech news, research, and discoveries you crave.

Sign Up

Learn More

Find out why MIT Technology Review Insider is for you and explore your options.

Show Me