David Talbot

A View from David Talbot

Digital Summit: Indoor Location Technologies Face Privacy Pushback

Indoor location technologies are a boon to retailers but may not be so welcome to consumers.

  • June 10, 2014

Just as powerful micro-location technologies able to pinpoint the whereabouts of smartphones indoors head to the marketplace, consumers are wising up to how much personal information is already being collected via their mobile devices. Those twin themes provided some tension today at the MIT Technology Review Digital Summit in San Francisco.

GPS doesn’t work well indoors. But Don Dodge, a developer advocate at Google, enthusiastically explained how new indoor location technologies could enable stores to track their shoppers, or firefighters to find their way out of smoky buildings. Several methods of tracking indoor location are being developed by a bevy of startups, as well as giants Google and Apple.

Those technologies include Wi-Fi triangulation, which measures signal strength from nearby Wi-Fi hotspots; Wi-Fi fingerprinting, which logs your phone’s ID number as it seeks out Wi-Fi connectivity; radio beacons that triangulate your position; and LED light fixtures that imperceptibly flicker to encode your location in a way your device’s camera can detect (see “LEDs Could Lead You Right to a Discount”).

Dodge says that indoor location technology is at the same chaotic place GPS was several years ago, but that the route to commercialization is clear. “Walmart wants to know: when customers come into the store, where do they turn? How long do they dwell in different areas?,” he said. “If they know that, they know where to put the specials they want to promote.” Large retailers have a strong interest in helping people get around – and nudging them towards specific places - he said, noting that Home Depot has 300,000 different products.

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Dodge’s talk was the best attended of the day’s sessions. But not everyone in the audience was cheering the trends he described. They took exception to the fact the technologies involved don’t provide easy ways to opt out from having your location tracked.

“Device location by beacon does not always offer opt-in or out. And [other] technologies are able to uniquely identify a user just by their having WiFi turned on,” says Javier Aguera, a co-founder of Blackphone, which is developing a phone that attempts to block such tracking (see “Ultraprivate Smartphones”). He told me that there should be more debate about the rights of the people being tracked by indoor location technology. “We believe users should always be aware of and have control of such activities.”

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