Special to the OSIRA Blog
by Norm Wilhelm
What is ‘geofencing’, or ‘geo-fencing’? It’s hard for people new to this term to know what exactly it is when the spelling varies, is applied to multiple techniques, and the definition for it can differ depending on which website you go to.
For the purposes of this article, ‘geofencing’ refers to the creation of a virtual fence line that encloses a geographic point or area, usually a boundary in the form of a polygon or circle. This fence line, now effectively a form of box, can now be used to search for specific objects inside the enclosed area, or identify when specific objects move into or out of the enclosed area. Other capabilities include being able to be set up the box as passive (observing something at a later date), monitored (seeing something has it happened), or automated (receiving a notice that something has happened). As examples, it can be used by security personnel to identify when an electronic device carried by a person enters a specific area; it can be used by marketeers to send a potential customer advertising when that customer is in close proximity to a specific retail outlet; or, it can be used during sports events to track the positions of tagged athletes in the competition area.
What was previously known as GPS (global positioning system) tracking has evolved in something much more sophisticated than simply a signal saying ‘I am here’. Advances in technology over the last few years have resulted in several geofencing-related applications now being available online for home computers and mobile devices, with research indicating they can be useful tools in obtaining information for intelligence and investigation work. The following are examples of this technology now available to analysts and investigators.
- Created in 2011, and based in Chicago, IL, this website offers a paid service related to geofencing. Customers can choose any polygon or circle shaped area around a point on a map and conduct a search of that area for any publicly available postings, covering Twitter, Instagram, Youtube, Picasa, and Flikr. Examples of uses for this web-based application include social media monitoring; monitoring real-time events such as riots; conducting corporate security checks; or checking specific addresses to see if a person of interest has posted publicly available information in that area.
- Created in 2013, and based in Victoria, BC, this websites offers both a paid service and a limited free service related to geofencing. Like the previous example, customers can choose any polygon or circle shaped area around a point on a map and conduct a search of that area for any publicly available postings, covering Twitter, Instagram, and Flikr. Examples of uses are the same as for the previous example, with the added option of this being a free service that does not require registration to use.
- Currently known as Xora (in future to be part of ClickSoftware Solution), this web-based tracking system has been offering geo-fencing capabilities since at least 2009. Intended as a tool for increasing corporate efficiency (increasing employee accountability by monitoring travel routes and remote activities), this tool offers highly specific geofencing capabilities, with detailed instructions available on a support website (see instructions here). Although not a traditional investigation or intelligence-gathering tool, these types of programs can still be useful sources of information for internal corporate investigations, vehicle and personal accident investigations, civil court cases, and criminal investigations.
- Previously known as Geoloqi, this is a web-based application that has existed since at least 2010, and appears to have later added a geofencing capability in 2012. Like the previous example, this application was not created for intelligence or investigation purposes, intended as a tool for retail marketing. However, the tool is not only able to send out offers to passing potential customers, it can track repeat customers that enter geofenced areas. In addition it can assign unique identifiers to devices it encounters, keeps a record of when a device was at a particular location, and can alert employees when a device holder is in a geofenced location. Due to the increasing number of persons today owning personal devices, this could be adapted for use as part of corporate security, special event monitoring, loss prevention programs, and for organizations that are common targets of criminal acts.
- Created in 2012, this mobile device application was previously hosted in Russia and most recently in Germany. Similar to geofencing, this app is described as using the customers’ device as the center of a defined area and looks for other persons with open accounts in the area, primarily focusing on females. This app was able to utilize public data from Foursquare and Facebook without the other person aware they were showing up on this application. It became the subject of a media article in mid-2012 due to its potential misuse (see article here) by stalkers and other criminal types, with Foursquare and Facebook later severing links with this program. However it is still advertised for sale as a mobile device app, as are dozens of similar products. These types of applications are not necessarily a tool for analysts and investigators, but a person who misuses this app can potentially be a subject of investigation.
- This smartphone application is the latest in a stream of mobile device spyware that has been created and made publicly available since the iPhone came out in 2007. This particular application has been active since at least August 2012, designed to monitor and record all aspects of cell phone use. The application is designed for installation by a customer, then provided to a user who is unaware of the applications existence on the device. However, unlike many other applications, this one advertised that it has a geofencing capability that sends notification to the customer when the device leaves a specific geofenced area, or enters a specific geofenced area (the website has been shut down, but a demonstration of their geofencing method is still available on Youtube). These types of applications are marketed as tools for protecting children, locating phones, and tracking employees; however, they are generally regarded nowadays as most commonly used by stalkers, abusive spouses and sexual predators. The FBI shut down the StealthGenie website (and over 100,000 customers) in September 2014 after their investigation determined that the application was specifically designed and sold as a tool for criminal purposes, the illegal tracking of unsuspecting victims (see the FBI article). In December 2014, the CEO of the company that made this application pled guilty to criminal charges and was also fined US$500,000. There are reported to be at least three other applications for mobile devices still active and advertising geofencing capabilities (e.g. Flexispy, MobileSpy, and Mobiflock). Knowledge of these types of apps and the risk they pose is a requirement for any person who believes themself to be the target of a stalker, abusive spouse or criminal acts.
These are only a few examples of some of the many programs available as web-based and mobile device-based applications using geofencing techniques. The amount of information that can be found relies primarily on the privacy settings a person has on their device and social media accounts, which limits its effectiveness. As seen from these few examples, the capability also comes with ethical and moral issues; it can be used for increasing safety and security of employees, but just as often it can be used for malicious and/or criminal purposes.
Of note, none of these programs or applications are intended for use as online investigative or intelligence collection tools, but can be added to an investigative process or intelligence methodology. The method may not be successful for everyone, but all it takes is finding one public piece of information with this method to make it valuable. That one piece of information can lead to other information at other sources, as well as other methods and techniques in the investigator’s and analysts’ toolboxes.