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What Is Geofencing and How Does It Affect Your Security and Privacy?

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Most smartphones collect GPS data, information on a user’s current location. This information can be used in a variety of ways—including geofencing, technology that’s become popular among advertisers and other businesses wanting to track the location of customer devices.

So what actually is it? How does geofencing work? And is it safe?

What Is Geofencing?

brown wooden fence outside at sunset with clouds swirling in background

Geofencing is a technology that uses location information from a smart device—like GPS, RFID, or Wi-Fi—to track whether a device is inside or outside a “fence,” a virtual boundary around an area in the real world.

The technology is used for a variety of purposes, like security, location tracking, and advertising.

Geofenced areas are typically large, ranging from a few hundred square feet to an entire neighborhood, city, or state.

One prominent example of the tech in use is geofencing for car security. Many businesses offer a new service where you can connect a car or smart tag to a geofence around your work and where you live.

If you’re not in the car and it leaves the safe area—potentially because thieves are making off with your vehicle—the system can automatically alert you. Depending on the kind of car you drive, it may even allow you to shut it down remotely if it strays too far from the geofenced area.

How Do Advertisers Use Geofencing?

While the technology has a variety of uses, it’s becoming especially popular in advertising.

By tracking a phone, it’s often possible to track a person as most Americans own a smartphone and won’t leave the house without theirs.

The average American will check their phone around 52 times a day, and according to a study by the Bank of America, 71 percent of Americans sleep with their smartphone—either keeping it on a nightstand, in their bed or even holding the phone as they sleep.

Related: Why Charging Your Phone Overnight Is Bad

With geofencing, it’s possible to target ads or promotions based on the GPS data from a particular person’s smartphone.

For example, a business may send a pop-up notification from their app when a user walks by one of their stores. Another may use geofencing to serve ads based on where a customer lives.

How to Block Geofencing

person holding black smartphone showing GPS location of Morley Butchers

Advertisers often use geofencing to send you more accurate ads, but you may be concerned about the geofencing security or privacy implications. Not everyone wants to trust a business with information about their current location.

Hackers who break into that business’s networks could also potentially see user location information.

Most advertisers and businesses that use geofencing will allow you to opt into or out of their geofencing program. If you’ve downloaded an app from a business you shop with, you can check the settings on that app and see if there is a geofencing or location tracking option you can deactivate.

Turning off the setting should ensure that the app will not track you in the future.

How to Protect Your Location Data

You can also change the settings on your phone to prevent third parties from using GPS data—making geofencing impossible.

The exact process will vary depending on the model of phone or smart device you own. In most cases, deactivating GPS location tracking is as simple as navigating to your settings, selecting the Location setting, and turning off GPS location tracking.

Some devices tuck this setting under a Privacy or Security section, instead.

Even with your GPS tracking turned off, however, businesses can still guess your location using your device’s unique IP address.

Fortunately, it’s also possible to spoof your IP address, making advertisers think you’re in one place when you’re really in another.

You can do this by using a Virtual Private Network (VPN), technology that allows you to hide your IP from advertisers and other data-tracking businesses. With your VPN active, you can set your location by connecting to a server that’s not located where you live.

For example, you could connect to a server across the country to make it appear as if you’re hundreds of miles from home.

With the VPN active and GPS location tracking turned off, advertisers won’t have reliable information on where you are.

What You Need to Know About Geofencing

black-iPhone-docked in car with GPS directions

Geofencing technology can help advertisers provide you with more relevant ads, but not everyone may want to provide the location information the technology requires.

It’s usually possible to disable geofencing in apps or services that you install. You can also deactivate GPS tracking on your devices, preventing companies from gathering data on your location.

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