Location Tracking Technology and Practices

PDF version of this report
You must have Adobe Acrobat reader to view, save, or print PDF files. The
reader is available for free

Location Tracking Technology and Practices

by Geoff Keston

Docid: 00021044

Publication Date: 2108

Report Type: TUTORIAL


Tracking the location of people and objects has become much easier, and
the technology now provides more data about its targets. This increasing
sophistication has created a vibrant market, but at the same time it has
presented enterprises with difficult choices — from what products and
features to implement to how to address the privacy concerns of citizens.
Understanding this new landscape and the issues being debated are critical
steps for responding to recent developments in location tracking.

Report Contents:

Executive Summary

[return to top of this

Location tracking is a broad category that includes a variety of devices,
applications, and wireless protocols.

Wireless Local Area Network
The Internet of Things Tutorial

In recent years, advances within each of these fields have greatly
transformed how well location identification works and expanded the range
of information that can be derived about a person or object being tracked.

The popularity of smartphones and mobile apps makes it easy to track most
consumers, and businesses are taking advantage of this development in a
variety of ways. For example, many retailers use phone-based tracking to
offer customers discount prices and personalized recommendations. More
advanced applications include everything from tracking the spread of
diseases to helping self-driving cars to work more effectively. Many
consumers appear willing to trade privacy in exchange for new features and
benefits, but questions about the privacy implications and legality of
tracking remain.

Integration with other services and software has further advanced
location tracking. For example, information from social networking sites
can be correlated with location data to provide insight that could not be
derived from either source alone. Such novel combinations are in the early
stages of being explored, so the technology and marketplace are likely to
change dramatically – and sometimes unpredictably – in the coming years.
Keeping up on these changes will be important, but for any single
enterprise, only some of the many uses of tracking will be relevant.
Therefore, it is important for enterprises to focus on their specific
business environment and goals and to seek measurable ways in which they
can use the technology to achieve the desired results.


[return to top of this

A Comprehensive System

A location tracking system is composed of the following types of
technologies, each working in conjunction to determine where a person or
object is and then use that data in various ways:

  • Hardware – In most cases, some type of physical device is
    carried by or attached to the object being tracked. In the past, this
    was typically a specialized tracking object like an RFID tag.
    Increasingly, it is a phone that, among other features, has asset
    tracking built in. There are also various types of more sophisticated
    technologies that track people from a distance without requiring the
    person to be carrying a tracking device. For example, video sensors can
    track people moving in a store or a public space, and thermal imaging
    devices can focus on a single moving object while ignoring other
    elements of the environment. 
  • Software – Software is used, at the most basic level, to read
    and store data from the tracking. There are more sophisticated uses as
    well, particularly to perform trend analysis and other Big Data
    functions. Much of the software now used in location tracking is
  • Wireless Transmission – Many common wireless technologies are
    used for location tracking, including Bluetooth, GPS, near-field
    communications (NFC), RFID, and Wi-Fi. These alternatives vary in the
    range they can track objects and in how closely they can pinpoint

People Tracking

There are many ways in which people are tracked today. There are common
consumer uses, such as parents keeping track of the whereabouts of their
kids, and there are numerous commercial uses, from tracking the movements
of delivery drivers to pinpointing the location of workers in dangerous
environments.1 The most common goals of commercial uses

  • Preventing fraud
  • Improving efficiency by scrutinizing processes and operations
  • Identifying safety issues
  • Studying customer behavior

The technologies used to track people range from the popular and
commonplace, like WiFi and GPS, to the advanced, such as structured light
and AI-based vision.2

Location tracking can be performed with or without the subject’s
knowledge and consent. But even in cases in which a person approves, such
as by clicking “Accept” to the terms of a new app, a typical consumer is
likely to be unaware of the full nature and extent of the tracking.

Object Tracking

Object tracking has long been used for inventory management and has
gradually become more sophisticated as wireless technology has advanced
and software more feature-rich. Among the features that are commonly used
in today’s location tracking technology are:

  • Associating objects with a serial number
  • Issuing alerts about unexpected events, such as an object moving into
    an unexpected location
  • Integration with asset management software
  • Integration with accounting software
  • Built-in lifecycle management workflows
  • Scheduling of upgrades and of maintenance tasks

Current View

[return to top of this

Tracking technology has become commonplace on phones for finding lost
devices, for parents to keep tabs on their kids, and for employers to
identify the locations of field workers.3 A New York Times
analysis published in May 2021, looking only at iPhone software, found
that “most [apps] do indeed collect and share a lot about you, and that
some of the longtime worst offenders haven’t changed their behavior just
because there’s a system pop-up or store label these days.”4 Further,
tracking features are being built into many other products.

The maturity and pervasiveness of tracking technology has made it readily
available for use in COVID data analysis. For example, in September 2020
Apple and Google separately announced that contact tracing capabilities,
which previously needed to be downloaded, would be directly integrated
into future versions of their platforms.5 But a few months
later, a story published by Time found that a lack of widespread
adoption and minimal coordination among various local governments was
greatly limiting the effectiveness of contact tracing apps.6 (For
a list of contact tracing tools, see the CDC’s “Guide to Global Digital
Tools for COVID-19 Response.”7) But even if location tracking
isn’t put to effective use for COVID tracking, the various attempts being
made demonstrate how the technology might be applied in new and unexpected

While tracking technology is greatly expanding in the consumer market, it
is also growing much more pervasive in business, in increasingly
sophisticated ways. The retail industry is one prominent segment that is
pushing the technology forward. Retailers have long used simple
location tracking for basic inventory management, but now they are using
more advanced technology for a wider range of applications. Today they can
target specific customers by sending them personalized ads. Retailers can
also study general consumer behavior, analyzing how an average customer
moves through a store. An analysis in the Harvard Business Review
noted that “[a] single customer visit alone can result [in] over 10,000
unique data points, not including the data gathered at the point of sale.”8

The value of understanding people’s actions in a retail store is
described by Subramanian Gopalaratnam of business process and
technology services company Xchanging: “The choices we make as we move
through a store reflect what we think about the decisions the retailer has
made. We pause at one display – not at another. We choose one aisle to
walk down and ignore the next. We pick up products but don’t buy; others
we place in our basket. Capturing these details as data is extremely
valuable to retailers. It is real-life feedback on the success — or
otherwise — of their displays, marketing campaigns and product ranges.”9

Retail shoppers are increasingly more comfortable with the idea that they
are being tracked. The popularity of tracking has led many consumers to
suffer “privacy fatigue,” in the words of Mark Lunt of technology and
consulting firm JOS.10 He argues that consumers often take for
granted that they have already forfeited privacy, so they are no longer
hesitant to use services that collect and share information about them.

In a first quarter 2021 survey, 38.5% of respondents said they would
allow themselves to be tracked by mobile apps.11 But there is a
difference between answering a survey question negatively and in practice
turning off tracking or declining to use technology to avoid it. And
consumers are more likely to accept being tracked when there are benefits
for doing so. For example, they might be informed of a sale or be offered
personalized shopping recommendations.

Location tracking is also used extensively in hospitals. An estimated
25-percent of hospitals use the technology, either for tracking people or
physical assets, or both.12 These uses can help with goals such
as finding a patient in a building or analyzing overall trends, such as
the amount of time it takes from when an emergency room patient enters the
hospital to when they see a doctor.13

Location tracking is also being used in a broad range of ways on the
Internet of Things. Describing this phenomenon, Mickael Viot of
semiconductor company Decawave notes that “robots, drones, and autonomous
vehicles are becoming growing markets.”14 And in addition to
location tracking’s use with these cutting-edge technologies, Viot says
that the concept is also seeing much greater use in less sophisticated —
but still quickly growing — segments of the Internet of Things like
wearables and connected homes.  The use of location tracking on the
Internet of Things is making supply chain management more effective. A
hypothetical example of this is described by Brian Cross of mapping and
spatial data analytics technology company Esri: “[T]his process enables
one agricultural producer to understand why a particular batch of
strawberries was superior. The company can see where that batch came from,
right down to what part of the field. They can then look at how they
treated that field differently so they can repeat this success in the
future. The company is essentially performing analytics on the back end to
help improve the product that they deliver to their customers.”15


[return to top of this

The overall trend is toward location tracking becoming even more
pervasive. The worldwide market is forecast to reach $68.85 billion in
2028, an increase from $22.18 billion in 2018.16 And over time,
people will grow more accustomed to seeing the technology used, as it is
employed in an increasingly diverse range of situations. For example, the
NFL uses RFID chips in balls and on players and has expanded the
technology’s use over the past few years.17 There is at least
one tag on every player in every game, and it is changing how the league
analyzes games and how teams evaluate players.18

Location tracking will also be used more commonly and in a wider variety of
ways by consumer technology. One of many signs of this is that application
developers are being encouraged to, and helped with, building location aware
capabilities into their software. For example, Android’s developer page
includes the following statement: “One of the unique features of mobile
applications is location awareness. Mobile users take their devices with
them everywhere, and adding location awareness to your app offers users a
more contextual experience. The location APIs available in Google Play
services facilitate adding location awareness to your app with automated
location tracking, wrong-side-of-the-street detection, geofencing, and
activity recognition.”19


[return to top of this

Seek Business Value

The range of location tracking technologies is broad and diverse, and
only some of it will be useful for any given enterprise. Furthermore, even
a single location tracking system may provide more data than an enterprise
can effectively analyze and use. With these factors in mind, an
organization would be wise to consider its own business needs before
making decisions about whether and how to use location tracking. In
particular, considering the following would be helpful:

  • Industry standards and best practices
  • Privacy regulations
  • What data is needed for key decisions
  • What data can be objectively quantified
  • Whether the information is straightforward to interpret

An example of using location tracking for a business goal comes from the
Nor-Lea Medical Clinic in Lovington, NM. The clinic found that nurses were
performing many administrative tasks, which didn’t require a nurse’s
skills, so it hired lower-paid medical assistants to do these other jobs,
thus cutting costs.20

Follow Rapid Changes

Each element of a location tracking system – hardware, software, and
wireless transmission – uses technology that is not unique to location
tracking. Every element is therefore developing somewhat independently and
is influenced by different dynamics. A major advancement in one wireless
technology might have a minor impact because of its insignificant role in
the entire tracking system, but a different advancement, though
comparatively minor in general, might have a significant impact because of
its important role in location applications.

Considering how quickly an organization’s needs and the technology
landscape may change, it is good practice to choose a location tracking
system that can be flexibly modified as needed. Well-established, standard
technology is preferable to proprietary products.

Consider Consumer Perceptions and Civil Liberties

Consumer advocates have for years expressed concerns about location tracking
and privacy. For example, in December 2020, the ACLU announced that it was
suing the US federal government, asserting that “[t]he federal government is
secretly purchasing and using our cell phone location information to locate
and track people in the United States, including for immigration

But while tracking creates bad press, the financial incentives to conduct
it — advertising that is “location-targeted” is a $21 billion a year
industry22 — make the practice likely to continue. One way
that the technology is commoditized is by the selling of data, the Times
found, not just to advertisers but also to “hedge funds seeking insights
into consumer behavior.”

Consumer expectations may change over time as new technologies emerge and as
enterprises find new ways to employ the concept. For example, the FBI can
identify people’s tattoos.23 Describing the database of tattoos,
which was culled from records of prisoners, a report from the Electronic
Frontier Foundation (EFF) offered the following criticism: “These
experiments exploit inmates, with little regard for the research’s
implications for privacy, free expression, religious freedom and the right
to associate… So far, researchers have avoided ethical oversight while
doing it…. The research program is so fraught with problems that EFF
believes the only solution is for the government to suspend the project

In the case of tattoo tracking, new technology is raising new
privacy problems. But in other cases, new advancements may improve
privacy. For example, researchers at UCLA developed a way to let users set
the permissions on location-aware applications more precisely. “User
applications requesting data of users is a binary permission, either I
share my data or I don’t,” said Joshua Joy, Minh Le, and Mario Gerla
in a paper describing their work.25 “However, sensitive data
such as location needs finer control on how accurate and how often the
location information is released.”

Privacy concerns also emerge when tracking employees. Guidance about
handling these concerns is offered by Nor-Lea Medical Center COO Dan
Hamilton, who recommends that organizations explain the technology fully to
employees, so that they understand what data will be collected and what will
be done with it.26


[return to top of this

[return to top of this

About the Author

[return to top of this

Geoff Keston is the author of over 250 articles that
help organizations find opportunities in business trends and technology.
He also works directly with clients to develop communications strategies
that improve processes and customer relationships. Mr. Keston has worked
as a project manager for a major technology consulting and services
company and is a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer and a Certified
Novell Administrator.

[return to top of this