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Geofencing in the UK - What you need to know

Last Updated 2022/04/12

A geofence is, in technical terms, a virtual perimeter that defines a real-world geographical area. In more practical terms, this means that users of mobile devices can be detected entering or leaving a particular area via the GPS data from their smartphone or tablet. At this point, they can then be contacted, via SMS message, email or through a web application.

Notable examples of geofencing

Google Local Guides app, which gathers data and photographs from users, and in return alerts them to nearby events and special offers they might be interested in. Safety apps for parents that allow them to set up a geofence for their children, ensuring they do not stray too far from home without their knowledge. Employee attendance geofences set up by businesses around workplaces such as building sites, to automatically keep track of which staff are present at any given time. Shops and restaurants using geofencing for marketing purposes. Usually to trigger an email or SMS message informing potential customers of a special offer or new product when they enter the vicinity of a retail location.

Proximity marketing

The last example of the four is the most common, and of particular interest to businesses looking for a new way to directly market to consumers. In conjunction with existing marketing research and strategies, this can be a very effective way to increase sales volumes by driving foot traffic to specific locations. SMS was originally the most common way to drive sales through proximity marketing. This has now been overtaken in recent years by location-specific marketing web applications. Users voluntarily sign up for these apps, giving their consent to push notifications and location tracking.

Geofencing and the law in the United Kingdom

While there are no specific laws written regarding geofencing in the UK or EU, important aspects of it fall under existing legislation, and anyone looking to utilise it for business purposes must be aware of their legal and ethical responsibilities. Geofencing raises serious issues regarding user privacy and consent. The ICO (Information Commissioner’s Office) recommends the philosophy of Privacy by design. Described as “an approach to projects that promote privacy and data protection compliance from the start” - rather than an afterthought. User location data is a particularly sensitive issue in this regard. It is important that gathering this information does not infringe on the guidelines laid out by the 1998 Data Protection Act, which amongst other things, stipulates that somebody’s data must only be used for “limited, specifically stated purposes”. This means that when designing an application involving geofencing, you must clearly and honestly let users know what their location data is being used for, and not stray from that original intention. Next year, the new General Data Protection Regulation comes into force, placing an even greater emphasis on user consent and disclosure of what exact information is being held for business purposes. If you are planning to keep past location data records to aid with future marketing campaigns, then be sure to inform customers of this fact.

Opportunities and responsibilities

Geofencing can be a great way to keep track of staff, boost sales, and inform customers of relevant information. But keep in mind that ethically, you are entering into a contract with the end user, whereby they are offered something of value for the use of their location data. And that usage must not exceed the terms of your original agreement. If you're interested in automating your business processes with a powerful, cloud-based software platform, get in touch today.

Adam Sykes