3 ways to track people using location-based services

by Dave Michels

There are lots of motivations driving organizations to install location-tracking technologies. The obvious driver is to find things, especially things on wheels, such as medical equipment in a hospital. It can also be smart to keep tabs on things in transit, such as a container. But the biggest reason to track things is simply because we can. 

We can also use these technologies to track people. Some solutions such as facial recognition can literally track people, but usually we just track a device someone might be carrying. We can now literally track the customer’s journey (through a retail store). 

There’s a popular misconception that global positioning satellites (GPS) are usable inside, but they range from worthless to unhelpful. GPS satellite signals require a direct line of sight to multiple satellites. 

3 ways to track people’s location indoors

There are, however, several ways to track location indoors. The most popular are Wi-Fi, Bluetooth beacons, and RFID. And all three are increasing in popularity.

The difference between tracking and stalking is consent. Though, getting permission to track isn’t as hard as you might think. It can be accomplished within a terms of service agreement on Wi-Fi access or with an associated app. Many retailers, for example, offer discounts and other incentives for customers to install in-store apps.

It’s very likely you have already agreed to several tracking solutions. Obviously, the wireless carrier knows where you are (and where you’ve been), and so do many other apps, such as Google Maps and Facebook.


Many Wi-Fi vendors offer optional location-based services (LBS). Since most places are installing Wi-Fi anyway, it’s an attractive add-on option. LBS uses triangulation, MAC addresses, signal strength and other methods to pinpoint a device’s location.

This approach doesn’t necessarily require user consent. Any Wi-Fi device will scan for networks, and that alone reveals some information. With an associated smartphone app, more location information can be obtained, and it also becomes possible to send someone location-based messages.


RFID uses small chips or tags that are usually affixed to an item. Key advantages are these chips are low cost and don’t require power. These tags reflect signals back to the transmitters. They are commonly used on toll roads, library books and even Disney’s MagicBands.

It’s a great solution for tracking items such as books in a library, but it’s an arduous implementation (placing tags in every book). The technology can also be combined with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth equipment.

Bluetooth beacons

Bluetooth beacons are all the rage these days. They use a technology known as Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), which is different from the more popular Bluetooth you use to pair a smartphone to the car stereo. Tracking by Bluetooth beacon requires consent.

Two notable differences between BLE and traditional Bluetooth are energy consumption and bandwidth. BLE devices are so energy efficient that in some cases batteries can last for years on a single charge. Regular Bluetooth supports broadband applications, such as audio, but BLE is more suitable for short transmissions.

Bluetooth beacons, which are also sometimes described as Active RFID, are one-way broadcasters conceptually similar to a lighthouse. The receiver, commonly a smartphone, interprets the beacon’s data and, usually with the assistance of other applications and networks, uses that data to determine location.

While the smartphone makes for a natural receiver, it’s not required. Carnival’s new Ocean Medallion wearable performs the role of the Bluetooth beacon. Carnival reversed roles so that the beacon (the medallion) is mobile and the receivers are fixed radios throughout the ship.

Regardless of the approach implemented, location tracking is rapidly becoming normal. It’s just a natural benefit/result of a connected world, and it will unleash a new era of location analytics—for things and people.

Location analytics will reveal who interacts with whom or what. For example, not only can we determine where the X-ray machine is, but we can analyze who moved it there, how frequently it gets used, and by whom. It means we can eliminate time cards and lose the lost and found bins. We can analyze behavioral patterns such as how frequently someone uses the bathroom or takes breaks.  

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