New chip tracks smart-phone locations down to the inch, even indoors

In 2010, GCN’s Kevin McCaney speculated that soon everyone would have a Marauder’s Map, the magical parchment that allowed Harry Potter and his friends to see in real time the location of everyone on Hogwarts school grounds.

That fantasy dreamed up by J.K. Rowling over a decade ago could now be a reality. Broadcom Corp. has begun shipping a new smart-phone-tracking microchip, Broadcom BCM4752, which aims to pinpoint a user’s location down to a few centimeters even indoors. It also tracks your vertical position, so it can tell which floor you are on in a building.

By combining sensor technologies, wireless protocols and multiple satellite feeds in a small, low-power chip, Broadcom, the largest supplier of Global Positioning System chips to cell-phone manufacturers, claims the BCM4752’s speed and accuracy are 10 times better than competing products. 

The chip uses a range of sensor technology Wi-Fi (including recently announced 5G Wi-Fi), Bluetooth, Near Field Communication and radio for indoor tracking.

Outdoors, its has a new Global Navigation Satellite System chip that the company says significantly reduces time to first fix, simultaneously collecting data from four satellite constellations — GPS, the Russian GLONASS, Japan’s QZSS, and SBAS, an augmentation system that uses ground stations to enhance satellite signals.

Most smart phones rely on one or two satellite systems, reported Bams Sadewo in Android Authority.

The more precise location measurements are accomplished “by communicating with a host of various sensors, like accelerometers, step counters, gyroscopes, altimeters, and magnetometers,” wrote David Hill in an article in Singularity Hub.

The chip is also 50 percent more energy efficient and 44 percent smaller because it uses 40-nanometer CMOS processing technology. With Broadcom’s release of the chip, it’s expected that phones with the technology could appear in a year.

The technology presumably is both a boon and a concern for government officials, companies and individuals. Law enforcement could better track suspected criminals. Malls or stores could develop “personal shopper” applications to direct users to a specific location or even a specific shelf. Parents could geotrack their kids. 

However, smart-phone tracking can also be an invasion of privacy, not to mention a potential security concern. Today many U.S. police departments track individuals via their cell phones and, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, do so without a warrant or court supervision, GCN reported recently.

Last May, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) held a hearing after weeks of controversy following revelations that the Apple iPhone tracks and stores users' movements in an unprotected way and that Google also had tracking code in Android applications. 

On an even more serious note, the Defense Department has expressed concern that smart phones could be used to track soldiers’ movements, which could endanger troops and missions. DOD security concerns center on the government’s limited ability to control unmodified commercial wireless devices.

Can users opt out of this experience? Maybe, but it won’t be easy. Blocking the signal will require using multiple jamming devices, reported Alex White in a Cell blog entry.

"You may jam the signal of new Broadcom BCM4752 tracking microchip by utilizing a mix of GPS jamming devices, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth jamming devices, and in addition you have to block the NFC signals,” he said.


About the Author

Kathleen Hickey is a freelance writer for GCN.


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