iBoss blog: When geolocation goes south


What do a Kansas farm and a seaside McMansion have in common? Both have been discovered as the result of various geolocation-programming errors over the past several years.

Certainly the use of global positioning system (GPS) chips now built-in to tablets and smartphones is mostly a benefit when it comes to navigating to a meeting spot or finding a nearby gas station or restaurant. But the ubiquity of GPS tech also has its downsides too.

Take the case of that Kansas pasture. For more than a decade, the owners of a small family farm outside of Wichita started getting regular visitors and calls thinking their farmhouse were the center of criminal activity or digital abuse. The reason had to do with a deliberate rounding error of their latitude and longitude for the center of the continental US. And thanks to software that matches up IP addresses with a location, their farm was showing up on thousands of records, including the default location for scammers and other questionable situations.

“The harassment continued to the point where the local sheriff had to intervene. He placed a sign at the end of their driveway warning people to stay away from the house and to call him with questions,” according to the post. Sadly, that didn’t help. One irate visitor even dumped a defective toilet on their driveway in frustration.

Others around the country have suffered a similar fate, such as a man in Ashburn Virginia whose home has been attached to millions of IP addresses from the Internet service providers who are located in nearby data centers. Think of them as “living in an IP flood zone” as the above article calls these geolocation disasters.

However, there certainly are other unintended consequences.One report ties the tracking bracelet that was worn by noted cartel boss El Chapo as the way his confederates helped locate the escape tunnel they dug to come out precisely inside his cell. And an ISIS fighter found out too late that his Tweets were being geo-tagged, broadcasting his whereabouts. In another case, a divorce lawyer monitored the social media of his client’s Gen Y children to geolocate properties that weren’t mentioned in the original filings. “We were able to go to the court with a list of assets that we conservatively estimated at $60 million, which the court then seized.”

Even if you don’t geotag your social media posts, there are still ways to figure out where you live, according to this academic research paper published last year. The scientists examined their friends’ geolocations and were able to estimate the target within a few miles.

So what can you do to prevent this? First, understand the accuracy limitations of any enterprise-level geolocation technology that you use. Actual mileage, as the saying goes, can vary. Although geolocation technology has been around for more than a decade, it isn’t as precise a location down to a particular household or street address. Facebook’s “safety check” warnings that its users might be inside a disaster zone turned out initially to not be very accurate, after people around the world were warned they might be near a bombing in Pakistan. Hopefully, the alert location algorithms have been improved since then.

Second, examine the developer tools that are available to employ geolocation and understand what apps you are trying to build. Look at what Google and Facebook are doing in this field and how you can tie into existing mapping efforts from these giant software vendors.

Finally, examine the settings for any corporate-owned phones and tablets and make sure you turn the geolocation features off if this is a concern.

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