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Everything You Need to Know About Geofencing

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More and more, apps and services are using our locations to deliver information to us. Triggering alerts, ads, or notifications based on geographic location is known as geofencing, and you’ve likely encountered it at least once today. Most of the time, geofencing is harmless. It can be helpful, like when you use a child location app to keep track of your child’s whereabouts.

Still, you should always be careful when giving away access to your location. Know who is using that info and for what purpose. In this guide to geofencing, you’ll learn what it is, what it’s used for, and — most importantly — how to block it when you don’t want to give your location away.

How does geofencing work?

Geofencing is a service that uses radio frequency identification (RFID), Wi-Fi, GPS, or cellular data to trigger an action when a mobile device or RFID tag enters or exits a virtual boundary based on a geographic area. This virtual boundary is the “geofence.”

The actions that pass through the geofence trigger could be push notifications, text messages, advertisements, or emails. Geofencing is also used to monitor activity in secure areas or disable certain technology. 

Administrators and app developers use RFID- or GPS-enabled software to draw a virtual boundary when creating their service or mobile app. They then determine which action is triggered when an authorized device enters or exits that boundary.

What is geofencing used for?

Geofencing has become a regular part of our lives, particularly with businesses trying to promote their products and services. Marketing isn’t all it’s used for, though. It can also be a useful security or human resources tool.

 Some use cases for geofencing include:

  • Social media: Location-based filters, checking in at your favorite restaurants, and other services tied to geographic locations are common features of social networking apps today. Snapchat is one of the most ubiquitous with geo-filters, but Facebook and Instagram also show you location-based ads.
  • Marketing: Businesses can provide in-store promotions by setting their apps to send a coupon via push notification when someone walks near or into their retail stores. Companies also use geofencing to get a better understanding of their target audience and send the most relevant ads based on their location.
  • Events: Concerts and large events use geofencing to help engage their audience members. They might set virtual parameters to gather social media posts about the event, or to send information to attendees via an event app.
  • Smart devices: Internet of Things (IoT) devices such as thermostats, refrigerators, and washing machines use geofencing to send you reminders or trigger actions. You could set your fridge to send a notification that you need more eggs when you’re at the grocery store or ask your thermostat to set itself to a certain temperature as soon as you leave or arrive home.
  • Human resources: Geofencing can come in handy for companies that have off-site employees. They can track where their employees go and automate clocking in and out.
  • Child location services: Geofencing powers most child location services and apps, alerting parents when a child leaves or enters a designated location.
  • Security: Giving away your location data can seem like an invasion of privacy or even a security concern, but it can also be beneficial. You could use a geofence to get alerts whenever someone leaves or enters your home, for example.

Geofencing can also be used to prevent drones from entering secure areas, like airports, outdoor event spaces, and the White House. Virtual boundaries may send alerts to the drone pilot, require authentication so the authorities know who the pilot is, or even cause drones to drop out of the air.

It’s also possible to geofence some firearms and prevent them from firing in areas where they are not permitted to fire.

Geofencing and privacy concerns

When not used correctly, geofencing can present major privacy problems. It’s not always a good thing for your apps to know where you are, especially if this location data can give away personal information about you. If a company sets up a geofence near a hospital it could provide records of frequent visitors, indicating possible medical issues. 

A geofence by a place of worship could give insight into someone’s religious beliefs. An advertising agency might set up a geofence near a women’s reproductive health clinic to send ads to anyone in the proximity about alternatives to abortion, as an agency in Massachusetts did in 2017.

If we’re not careful, geofences can let others know not only where we’re going but also what we’re doing and sensitive information about us.

Can you block geofencing?

Whether you are subject to geofencing or not depends on the privacy and data laws in your country or region. Individuals can prevent most instances of geofencing by turning off location services on their mobile devices. Most geofences are associated with mobile apps, so either switching off location services for the device or blocking location permissions for each app will protect against most geofences.

If you don’t want to turn off location services but find it annoying when a particular store sends you a push notification every time you pass by on your morning walk, you can also turn off notifications for that store’s app. 

In general, reducing the number of mobile apps you have and only allowing apps to use your location when needed is a good practice to get into. Ad tracking on mobile phones has gotten out of control in recent years, and keeping your device free from services you don’t need is one way to avoid it.

Stay cautious to avoid unnecessary geofencing

Geofencing is part of everyday life now; it’s almost impossible to escape these virtual boundaries. While they do serve important purposes, they can also be a massive privacy invasion. If you don’t want to give up your location data, take steps to protect your privacy.

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