Location tracking is now ubiquitous. Just think, how often do you use a map app on your phone to navigate from A to B? The ability to do find your way around unfamiliar cities with just a few taps is something we now take for granted, but it’s worth taking a step back to consider the extent to which location tracking has changed our lives. Through GPS-powered apps like Find My Phone and the more nefarious likes of location tracking for advertising, this article will explore the three ways location tracking has changed the world.
1) Mapping the future: Sat navs and telematics
It seems like a lifetime ago that we had to use actual maps to get to and from places. With location tracking, we’ve become accustomed to instantaneously finding out where we are and where we’re going, and it all began with sat navs. Although GPS tracking had been around since as early as the sixties, and was in general military use in the eighties, it wasn’t until the rise of consumer sat nav in the mid 2000s that it began to be used by the public en masse.
However, in recent years, the sat nav has been obliterated by the location tracking functionality of smartphones. Instead of buying a separate device for navigation purposes, all consumers have to do is use the inbuilt navigation provided by their phones, rendering sat navs obsolete for the most part.
Whilst sat navs are becoming increasingly marginalized, other innovations in location tracking technology are continuing to change the world. Perhaps the most prominent example of this is GPS vehicle tracking technology, which is being increasingly used by businesses to monitor their vehicles. This allows organizations to remotely track information on their fleets, such as how far drivers have travelled and a breakdown of fuel costs, in order to maintain efficiency and cut costs. As vehicle tracking experts Movolytics note, this technology can ‘automatically maintain driver logs and generate compliance reports with minimal effort’, enabling businesses to easily and effectively manage their fleet.
GPS fleet tracking technology is also useful for facilitating green driving. Alongside its ability to track the likes of speeding and idling, the technology also uses real-time traffic data to create efficient routing for drivers, which enables them to use less fuel and reduces the associated emission of harmful gases. This type of technology can become an increasingly useful tool in allowing businesses to become more eco-friendly in the future.
2) Find my phone capabilities improve our lives more than you might realize
Most of us are familiar with the heart-dropping realization that you’ve misplaced your phone after a night out. On many occasions they are retrievable—a simple case of leaving them somewhere obvious. But sometimes, we can’t find our phone anywhere. Ordinarily, that would be it—our phone is lost forever. However, location tracking has made this a thing of the past as well.
Because all smartphones have in-built location tracking capabilities, both Android and iPhone mobiles can be easily located if they go missing. All Android users have to do is download the Find My Device app. This uses GPS to tell owners exactly where their phones are, and enables them to ring, lock or erase their devices from the web. Those misplacing their iPhones can use the inbuilt Find My iPhone function when the worst comes to worst. They simply need to log into their iCloud accounts to track down their errant devices.
As an extension of this, Apple have released a ‘Find My Friends’ app which allows users to see where their friends are wherever they go, creating a useful way for mates to coordinate meetups. Although on its release it was described as “creepy”, the fact that users must opt in to it for it to work makes it less nefarious than it may initially seem. While this app sounds pretty unremarkable, it has actually helped save lives.
In 2017, a climber in the Lake District became injured after falling into a 60-foot steep gully, and despite calling the emergency services, they were unable to work out where he was. However, the climber managed to gain access to his phone, using the ‘Find My Friends’ app to send rescuers his exact location. Apps like this can prove increasingly useful in missing persons cases.
3) Location tracking advertising: Great for advertisers—not so great for privacy
As you’re probably aware, mega corporations like Apple, Facebook and Google collect all manner of data about us for advertising purposes, related to everything from our phone’s battery level to our email address and, increasingly, our whereabouts. Although not directly shared with advertisers, all of this information is made available to them through “anonymized” targeting groups. By noting where we are—what brick-and-mortar stores we visit, for example—advertisers can target their products to our perceived preferences.
This is, unsurprisingly, great for advertisers. After all, we are more likely to respond to advertising that is specifically aimed at our interests. However, this has raised major privacy concerns; even seemingly anonymized location data can paint a pretty detailed pictures of users and their habits. Indeed, enough ancillary data can even reveal a user’s identity
Whilst Facebook have announced that they will disable a form of location advertising targeting called Partner Categories in light of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, this type of advertising is still rife. Many apps on iPhone and Android devices still use location data for these purposes, and Google were embroiled in controversy late last year when it emerged that they still tracked users’ locations when the setting was off. Considering the PR disaster—and the resulting plunge in share prices—that Facebook suffered because of data exploitation, and the public’s increasing aversion towards such advertising tactics, this could be one use of location tracking that does not have a long term future.