iPhones as Homing Beacons: How AT&T and Verizon Help Companies Track Employees

Last Updated Jan 21, 2011 4:48 PM EST

These days, location apps are pretty lighthearted affairs. Companies like Apple (AAPL) let you use GPS to find your lost iPhone, or see your location on a map, while other services from Facebook and Foursquare can help track where your friends and family are. Even ski mountains are offering location apps to help skiers find their friends across the mountain.

But for companies, location services offer an intoxicating possibility: the ability to track every piece of IT property all over the globe, in real-time. The weird part is, it's not always with employees' express permission. AT&T (ATT) and Verizon (VZ) have both recently rolled out this service.

David Allen is CTO of LOC-AID, the contractor hired by AT&T and Verizon to provide enterprise-grade location services. He answered some of BNET's most glaring questions over this powerful new ability for companies to track their assets.

How is an internal corporate location app different from Foursquare?
The biggest difference between consumer and enterprise location services, Allen says, is the app itself. Services like Foursquare are "opt-in," meaning they require the user to download an app, sign up, and agree to be tracked.

Enterprise location tracking is totally passive for end users; they don't download or sign up for anything. Instead, their employer simply signs up for location tracking with their carrier (AT&T or Verizon), and can immediately see any device with a 2G/3G connection anywhere in the world. Presumably this means they can also see the location of the employee carrying the device, even if the user hasn't done anything to activate this service.

Do employees get notified they're being tracked?
Um... maybe. But maybe not.

"We can locate any subscriber," says Allen, "and companies want all those subscribers to be addressable," or discoverable. Normally, this requires passing through some privacy gateways, says Allen. "The end user must opt in through a Web portal or SMS, or an app like Foursquare," he says, per "universal" CTIA and MMA guidelines, and carriers' own privacy protocol.

But with enterprise services, there's a catch. "In a workplace scenario, the corporate entity has the right to opt-in those devices," says Allen. "The [employee] is typically notified, but the opt-in is up to the employer."

In other words: if your employer owns your phone, tablet or 3G-enabled computer, they're entitled to own your location, too.

Why would employers risk outrage amongst employees just to play Big Brother?
A company's desire to know the location of all its IT assets seems, at first, a little... overzealous. But the utility of this data belies its creepiness. That's because LOC-AID can give enterprise IT developers credentials to access their data, allowing them to build their own custom company tools that use this data via an API, or application programming interface.

The upshot for companies: they can create bolt-on software solutions that make this location data useful. Perhaps a sales unit wants their invoicing system to automatically adopt the native currency wherever their salespeople roam. With LOC-AID's data firehose, things like that are possible.

How does it work?
LOC-AID is a "location aggregator." What does that mean? "We can locate any device, whether it has GPS or not," says Allen. With GPS-enabled devices like the iPhone, this is relatively straightforward. But with non-GPS-enabled devices, a little bit of technological chicanery is required.

"Envision a cell site," says Allen (a typical tower appears in the photo above). "They're triangular, and each side has about 120 degrees of sweep." Every time a signal is transmitted to a nearby phone, says Allen, there is a round-trip delay to the mobile device and back. By using all three sides of the triangle to "talk" to the mobile device, the tower can triangulate which edge of the base station is closest to the device. "Typically the accuracy return varies," says Allen. "In urban settings, it can be accurate down to several blocks; in suburban settings, several hundred meters."

What does this all mean?
"We're moving away from the downloadable app model," says Allen, towards a future "where businesses will want to locate M2M devices all over the world. Someday we hope to be processing hundreds of millions of transactions for services," he says.

In other words: most employees will soon be carrying homing beacons wherever they go.

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