Is geofencing a protective bubble or a heap of trouble?

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Even if it were to end today, the COVID-19 crisis will leave an indelible imprint on the infrastructure of our lives. In addition to the painted lines, warning signs, and other low-tech indicators that attempt to keep people safely separated, we’re seeing greater interest in technological solutions to enforce quarantines of infected individuals and keep the coronavirus from spreading in crowds.

Geofencing for quarantine management

Although much attention has gone to as a tool for tracking the virus’s spread, is a potentially more useful tool for enforcing these curve-flattening practices at the larger societal level, in every home, office, or other facility.

Geofencing systems monitor and enforce the virtual boundaries within which mobile, edge, and other devices—and their associated human users—roam. These systems can take various programmatic actions, such as sending an alert message, loading a device-level user interface, or issuing robotic commands when a device enters, exits, or moves around in a prespecified zone, as indicated by its GPS, RFID, Wi-Fi, and/or Bluetooth coordinates.

Chief providers of geofencing solutions are , , , , , , , , , , , and .

The true power of geofencing lies in its ability to dynamically evolve the embedded rules, machine learning models, and other artifacts that constitute the social-distancing logic being enforced. Where management of COVID-19 quarantines is concerned, geofencing can be set up with human response loops. It can trigger a friendly reminder call or take a more stringent, systemic response, such as locking the doors of an isolation ward to prevent infected people from walking out.

Here’s one example of a geofenced human response loop. The Irish telecommunications company  to keep track of quarantined travelers who arrive in the country. The system was trialed in the Bahamas and is under evaluation by the Irish government. Arriving travelers would be required to download a Hubbcat geofencing app. Once the app is set up on a traveler’s smartphone, it would allow Irish authorities to create a virtual perimeter around the territory or facilities (such as a house or hotel) where travelers will be self-isolating during the required quarantine period.

that tracks compliance with home quarantines by COVID-19 patients. , the LakshmanRekha application:

when we dine out, go to the supermarket, or otherwise try to carry on life as usual. Implemented through self-service apps, geofencing enables commercial establishments to serve their mobile-order customers while complying with social distancing imperatives. The technology can alert merchants when customers approach so that orders can be filled before people enter the brick-and-mortar environment, hence shortening on-site waiting and reducing occupancy in the nick of time. Geofencing can also customers who opt for curbside pickup, shortening service latencies while keeping everybody safe.

Geofencing also has clear applications in and other distributed location scenarios. Without requiring site administrators to enforce safety practices at each location, the technology can be used for  of workers and visitors who’ve tested negative. It can show visitors important information about COVID-19 safety and mandatory processes at or before check-in. And it can determine occupancy of these sites in real time in order to issue evacuation and distancing instructions if infected individuals happen to arrive in the vicinity.

to determine when individuals have fled from COVID-19 isolation wards so that they can be apprehended and returned to the institutions from which they escaped. Authorities in geofencing to track the movement of people in quarantine and to notify authorities in real time via email and SMS when someone breaks out of a geofence or is likely to do so. Likewise, authorities in  and  states are also reportedly evaluating the use of geofences to enforce quarantines.

 that warned the wearer and alerted the authorities if an infected individual had violated the requisite  period. These wristbands contained a QR code paired with a , using Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and GPS signals to track a person’s location.

The Hong Kong government contended that the wristband did not raise  because it did not track a person’s exact location but simply whether someone was inside or outside of their home. When the quarantine ended, people could cut the bracelet with a pair of scissors and delete the app.

A tool that helps or harms

Containment will become a fundamental requirement in the coming society. Public and private infrastructure will need to be able to contain COVID-19 and other contagions by enforcing a protective bubble around vulnerable human beings. But containment is a double-edged sword. No one wishes to be contained unless it is justified by some compelling need, such as warding off a life-threatening disease.

The civil liberties concerns surrounding geofencing go beyond privacy and surveillance. The technology potentially infringes on other activities—constitutional and otherwise—that many people cherish:

  • If you’re a Second Amendment absolutist, you might be concerned about potential restrictions on the right to bear arms that could be implemented if geofencing is used with . Potentially, geofencing might restrict those firearms to discharge only in permitted locations rather than where their owner/operator chooses.
  • If the freedom to travel is your passion, you might be concerned about the potential for geofencing to be used with GPS-based automotive navigation systems. Such systems could restrict your ability to drive anywhere you wish in your community, across your country, or internationally.
  • If you’re disabled or elderly, you might chafe at geofenced equivalents of the that are designed to help you but might impose overly restrictive rules on your mobility and ability to engage in activities that you love.

In coming years, we’ll see a lot of innovative uses of geofencing to protect our health and safety, deliver targeted offers and experiences, and otherwise improve our quality of life. Quarantine is a necessary evil and an important, protective use of geofencing. But let’s make sure we don’t inadvertently use these virtual perimeters to contain and constrain free society in a well-intentioned dystopia.

Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

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