Can geofencing protect us?

IKE Institute CEO Professor Sa’ad Sam Medhat explores the applications and benefits of geofencing in protecting people, organisations and critical infrastructures in an increasingly connected world. 

Geolocation technologies and their applications have continued to expand since the introduction of global positioning system (GPS) services in 1995. GPS is a network of satellites that transmit radionavigation signals that can be received by devices used to determine the location data of something on Earth. Location data can be a useful indicator of behaviours, interests and intent, in a point in time.

Today’s rapid growth in the use of data to help us tackle societal challenges such as climate change, inequality, resources management and global health, amongst many others, has necessitated a parallel expansive drive in location data. For example, local governments can use location data to manage local area services, deliver improvements and exploit opportunities for innovative solutions.

At an individual level, GPS tracked location data on a mobile can offer significant advantage when it comes to personal safety, as it provides emergency responders with the ability to find the location coordinates of the emergency.

However, without knowing where the data is, who owns the data, and the source of the data, the data cannot be appropriately safeguarded. Ascertaining a physical location of an individual or object relative to a map is a type of a geolocation positioning technology application known as geofencing.

What is geofencing?

A geofence is a software application that uses geolocation technologies such as GPS together with communication technologies such as radio frequency identification (RFID), Bluetooth beacons, and wireless local radio-frequency networking technologies (Wi-Fi) to create virtual boundaries around a geographical zone of interest known as a virtual barrier or ‘fence’.

The geofencing technology works by placing ‘GPS-aware’ sensors within the geofence. When these sensor devices connect to the cloud, a virtual boundary is set. A geofence can take the shape of a line (e.g. a street) with its thickness denoting the width of the geofence, a polygon (e.g. a city, park or plant), or circle with any radius to express the geofence coverage zone. Typically, geofences can be categorised as:

  • Static: based on the position relative to a specific location. For example, location-based marketing that allows you to draw a virtual fence around an area of interest. So, when a customer enters the area, they will receive a notification advert or a promotional SMS message;

  • Dynamic: based on a user’s position relative to dynamic changes, or peer-to-peer – a user’s position relative to other predefined users. For example, in tracking vehicle activity to define, modify, and delete areas of interest;

  • Peer-to-peer: based on the position of devices that are operable within the zone. So, each device (e.g. smart phone) queries the peer devices within the peer-to-peer network associated with an IP address or a geographic location.

Conceptually, there is a difference between geolocation and geofencing applications. Geolocation is primarily related to tracking devices. Geofencing is about tracking the location itself, guarding the perimeter and identifying anyone who is entering the predefined location.

Where is geofencing used?

One of the early applications of geofencing was by livestock farmers to manage the movement of their cattle and alert the farmer when an animal strayed outside the designated geofenced area.

Today, geofencing technologies enjoy wide ranging uses such as in:

  • the management of assets to prevent theft;
  • allowing real-time visibility to track delivery status in supply chain management;
  • law enforcement, e.g. ankle bracelets to confine offenders’ movement;
  • building energy and zone management;
  • safeguarding children’s movement within a known location;
  • ensuring personal safety for users when they enter or exit a geo-zone by generating a notification that might describe the potential threat level and duration;
  • filtering out requests for location-specific businesses that wish to only operate in specific geographies;
  • electronic voting to validate ballots’ constituency locations;
  • the creation of temporary no-fly zone to prevent small unmanned aerial system (UAS) from infiltrating a restricted perimeter.

A geofence can also help an organisation to protect itself by acting as a shield for its networks and data assets from nefarious activities that intend to cause a denial-of-service (DoS) for its legitimate users and ecosystem partners. So, instead of just depending on a firewall to identify and combat each DoS attack individually, a geofence with the appropriate security policies could simply block the attacks from those geographical areas, regardless of the number of individual IP addresses that the attacker may deploy.

Given the widely expanded use of consumer smart devices, geofencing offers a versatile software feature that is integral to many iOS and Android based applications. Market researchers and forecasters predict the global growth of the geofencing market to be at CAGR of 23% to 27.0% from 2021 to 2027, reflecting the increased use of spatial data applications by various industry verticals.

What are the challenges of geofencing?

Developing a geofencing capability depends on the quality and quantity of data used. For example, if geofencing was deployed by a business for a marketing activity, that data collected can provide in-depth insights into the customer experience and the purchase journey to help the business to develop more targeted promotional campaigns that underpin its growth strategy.

However, the harvesting of the geofencing data and associated inferences in the profiling of customer or user behaviours and their purchasing patterns will need to be carefully managed to avoid infringement of privacy laws or violation of trust, social norms and standards.

As a case in point, in the US, a federal judge in Virginia ruled that the warrant that was obtained by the police using the suspect’s Google location history on his mobile, which found him to be within close proximity to the scene of a bank robbery in 2019, unlawful, as it had violated the constitutional protection rights against unreasonable searches.

Geofencing and technology confluence

Geographical information systems (GIS) collected by satellites are notoriously error-prone, particularly in urban settings as they experience difficulties in recognising buildings (e.g. the building height, adjacent roads). So, by combining GIS data with data collected by IoT sensors from within a trusted zone, a more realistic and useful solution can be achieved.

Such solution can also be further augmented by interrogating and extending data collected from public organisations relating to health, environment, policing or road traffic to form part of a smart city offering.

Interestingly, the interplay of geofencing applications with other technologies such blockchain and plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles has also grabbed the attention of industrial players, such as automotive manufacturer Ford, with a view to improving air quality in dense urban cities.

Ford conducted a range of trials where it used dynamic geofencing as part of its Transit Custom PHEV to trigger the zero-emission mode, not only in city regions that are subject to emission laws and charges, but also when the vehicle senses deterioration in the air quality and thus activates the electric mode when needed. The blockchain is used to generate a secure and transparent digital ledger that creates permanent time-stamped records of the green miles travelled by the vehicle, and confirms compliancy requirement.

As 5G offers speed and higher reliability due to the larger bandwidth spectrum and smaller latency features, geofences can leverage these features to deliver better quality coverage and serve a larger number of users. 

Another area of expansion and advancement is that of the conditional event triggers known as ‘if this, then that’ (IFTTT). It’s a software application that interrogates and activates IoT devices as well as other apps to enable rule-based collaborative working resulting in specific actions. For example, ‘if I leave my home at 8 am, then turn all of the lights off in my kitchen’.

In addition, the growing uptake of 5G networks, which are driving up connectivity of edge and IoT devices with much more accurate location estimation than those provided currently by existing network carriers, is offering more accurate positioning results when deploying geofences. This is especially relevant in urban areas where GPS reception is sometimes bad due to such issues as high buildings or atmospheric conditions.

As 5G offers speed and higher reliability due to the larger bandwidth spectrum and smaller latency features, geofences can leverage these features to deliver better quality coverage and serve a larger number of users.

Furthermore, the emergence of fog computing or fog networking – an architecture that uses edge devices to carry out a substantial amount of computation, storage, and communication, locally, and routed over the Internet – will create new cost savings and remove the need for edge components (e.g. sensors and cameras) to be hardwired.

The trusted zone

With the accelerated drive for digital transformation almost in every sector, the application of geofencing technologies will also continue to grow, particularly when it comes to ensuring people’s safety and protecting critical infrastructure and assets.

Creating local trust zones is increasingly becoming mandated by governments, businesses, citizens and consumers alike. The capability to accurately provide timely geofence data, tag items of interest with location metadata, and use location coordinates as key to search databases is the foundation for a thriving software market for geo-based applications that run on smart mobile phones.

Trust zones can help create safe and secure spaces for devices, platforms and people to connect to each other and form local mesh of networks, without the need for network densification, as the demand for increased data capacity and data services continue to surge.

The next level of transformation will further disrupt existing geofencing ecosystems and create new capabilities and use-cases that allow for super-rich data to be controlled over wireless networks in a much more robustly safe and effective way.

Professor Sa’ad Sam Medhat


Chief Executive
Institute of Innovation and Knowledge Exchange,

Visiting Professor of Innovation and Digital Transformation, University of Westminster

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