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The Yin and Yang of Indoor Navigation

There's incredible power with simply knowing where you are. GPS technology has made precision outdoor navigation a given, but indoor location services are also becoming more of a critical service. Let's have a look at the how and why of indoor navigation, along with concerns that go with it.

I have a long personal history with making use of location information, going back to my Air Force days in electronic warfare. Though being aware of where a given threat radar is has an entirely different gravity than does knowing where a client device might be in a department store, the underlying principles aren't all that different. Once you know where something or someone is, you can do an awful lot with that data depending on your operational goals.

On the very large Cisco wireless network I run at Syracuse University, we have a number of Mobility Service Engine (MSE) appliances that are leveraged for a variety of purposes. As with competing systems, we import hundreds of floor plans, invest time in estimating the effects walls and other building features will have on Wi-Fi signals, and use the magic under the hood of the MSEs to find lost or stolen client devices, rogue signals and interference sources with impressive accuracy. But with this sort of power comes responsibility.

Wireless location systems from today's big-name players not only show where a given device is in an easily consumed graphical format, but they also log location history. Given that 802.1x networks authenticate users by some sort of network name, this gives administrators the ability to call up on demand and by name anyone's location or where his past activities occurred. Even in this age of willful forfeiting of privacy for the gains of being hyperconnected, people frequently get creeped out seeing their own names accurately on a map and frequently ask, "Who has access to this system and can see where I am?" In our case, it's tightly limited to a small number of full-time support staff members.

Beyond my corner of the world, Wi-Fi-based location services also service asset tracking in a big way. A nearby hospital uses Wi-Fi tags to show where all manner of hospital equipment, from wheelchairs to IV pumps, are throughout the facility. The trade-off? High-accuracy WLAN design is often at odds with wireless security (you need to place APs on your outside walls) and can require more access points than would simple client access. But then again, time saved in not searching for assets tends to win out over such concerns.

In the retail space, arguably no one is deeper into leveraging the notion of indoor navigation than Nearbuy Systems. Stores can utilize their existing WLAN infrastructure and Nearbuy's services to engage shoppers by sending product specials and other enticements to their smartphones with aisle-level accuracy. The catch, however, is shoppers must be willing to engage by enabling Wi-Fi on their mobile devices, logging in and, ultimately, trusting that information regarding their purchasing habits and history won't be abused--all of which adds more steps to the activity of shopping.

Though I can't see myself as ever having the patience to play the high-tech shopping game, Nearbuy is growing. By being an add-on service to existing WLAN infrastructure, merchant costs are reduced. And just as important as customer-facing operations, Nearbuy promises to improve workflow by using gathered data from employee-carried devices to optimize workforce traffic patterns and identify unproductive detours. Yes, Big Brother is watching, and he wants to either give you a Nearbuy customer discount, or rat you out if you aren't where you should be in the store as an employee.

Newcomer Wifarer is looking to make its mark in large venues that are likely to have wireless networks (airports, museums, malls). The app utilizes interactive maps to help users navigate through facilities; it also features interactive content like narration for a museum display or specials available at a merchant down the mall. As with Nearbuy, the business case is partially built on being a value-add to existing infrastructure. As I watched Wifarer's interesting demo I couldn't help but think, "OK, how are bad guys going to use this?" There's something unsettling to the mind of a security professional about anyone and everyone being able to download an unsanitized airport or concert facility floor plan as part of an app. Hopefully, Wifarer is working with customers to leave private parts of these facilities out of the map graphics that are available to the public.

As wireless gets ever more pervasive and the smartphone explosion continues, indoor navigation and location services will provide more business opportunities and benefits to wireless clients. It's a fascinating space, but it does bring the inevitable question: "How can this be abused?"