New ways to track you via your mobile devices: Big Brother or good business?

A new technology called IPS can track your every move -- or help you find a departure gate at the airport. Should we fear it or embrace it?

That isn't going to happen overnight, however. Before services can use TV white spaces for location finding and content distribution, the necessary technology  -- including mass-produced chips inside phones and special wireless access points  -- must be standardized, which likely won't occur for at least a few years.

In addition, the system isn't terribly precise, as the accuracy is good only at 25 feet to 50 feet. "We can use several well-known methods to refine this coarse location, for example taking signal-strength measurements from several access points and then mathematically combining these signals to estimate the location of the phone a bit more accurately," says Scott Probasco, a senior manager at Nokia.

Broadcom

nd of the year, a new chip made by Broadcom, called the BCM4752, will be integrated in certain mobile devices coming to market. Although the company won't identify the devices, the technology looks to be pretty mind-blowing.

Designed for smartphones, tablets, portable media players, and portable navigation devices, the BCM4752 chip is a Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) product that communicates with the U.S.-based GPS as well as with three of that system's counterparts  -- the Russian GLONASS, the in-progress Quasi-Zenith Satellite System (QZSS) in Japan, and SBAS constellations of satellites.

Access to more satellites means better location awareness, but what's really fascinating about the Broadcom location platform is that, in addition to supporting IPS through Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and NFC, it integrates measurements from device sensors  -- the accelerometer, gyroscope, magnetometer, and altimeter  -- into its positioning engine.

Essentially, that means Broadcom's technology can find your location without being connected to any kind of network. For example, after recording your GNSS coordinates as you enter a building, the technology could continue to track your device's location simply based on these sensor outputs  -- how many steps you've taken, in what direction you took them, and at what altitude.

According to Scott Pomerantz, GM and VP of Broadcom's GPS line of business, the technology makes use of intelligent location software known as the Hybrid User Location Application to integrate measurements from GNSS, inertial sensors, its Wi-Fi products, its cellular modem, and many other RF components found in smartphones today.

"We want to be able to do all of the position location locally, not necessarily depending on outside databases or other information; but, just with the device in your hand, we can recognize [the data that is] available and how to render [its] position," Pomerantz says.

While it's one thing to have a phone capable of doing incredible things and quite another to build out infrastructure and applications that actually use it, Pomerantz says many location-aware apps will be able to make great use of the BCM4752 chip.

The companies I spoke with represent just a sampling of those carrying out the location tracking of mobile devices. If this topic interests you, check out Polaris Wireless as another example: It provides high-accuracy, software-based systems for finding the location of mobile phones, and it can serve not only for activities like push advertising and social networking but also for asset tracking and fleet tracking, plus lawful interception by government agencies.

How much should you worry about privacy issues?

Should it bother you that so many entities can see where you're using your mobile device, or do features such as vastly improved navigation trump any such privacy concerns?

I posed the question to a couple of experts well versed in the implications of this advanced technology.

Rob Enderle, principal analyst for Enderle Group, sees the tracking of individuals as particularly useful for companies that have high security requirements or have issues with employee theft or time-card cheating. And, he says, when physical danger is an issue, knowing a person's exact location can mean that help comes faster. "In those instances, when implemented properly, the reward clearly exceeds the risk," Enderle says.

"The utility and convenience for commercially available location-based services and wireless tracking usage outweigh, at this moment in time, individualistic notions of privacy," says T. Jeff Vining, VP of government research and geospatial surveillance operational technology for Gartner, a technology research firm. "But when data is aggregated, then it will become a concern for privacy advocates and governments."

In short, this is a subject you're going to want to track.

Follow Christina DesMarais on Twitter and Google+ for even more tech news and commentary, and follow Today@PCWorld on Twitter.

This story, "New ways to track you via your mobile devices: Big Brother or good business?" was originally published by PCWorld.

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