Great, Drones are Spying on Mobile Phone Signals Now

By Adam Clark Estes on at

Right now, at least one ad company is using drones to spy on unsuspecting citizens. And it's having a "ton of fun" doing it.

AdNear is self-described as "the leading location intelligence platform." Basically, these data-driven marketers track mobile phone signals in order to throw hyper-targeted ads in your face, kind of like the profit-hungry chaos you see in Minority Report.

Lately, AdNear's been using a fleet of quadcopters to spy on people's mobile phone signals, starting in Los Angeles, California. The whole program sounds incredibly questionable, and the US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) probably isn't going to do anything about it.

Before anybody goes demonising drone technology, note that AdNear has already been using cars, trains, bikes, and people on foot to locate wireless devices and to observe consumer behaviour. The Singapore-based company brags that it's already "profiled" over 530 million users this way in Asia. Now, as of this month, AdNear is using DJI Phantom quadcopters for data collection. An undisclosed number of operators are currently testing a new program in the southern LA area as part of a larger push to deploy the mobile phone tracking program throughout the region.

The company assures that the wireless data collected is anonymous and does not include phone numbers, call data, or any photography. The description of the new drone program does sound pretty horrifying, though:

The usage of drones for location data collection would tremendously reduce human intervention and ease the process of collating data in inaccessible regions. … We are talking a new level of scale all together. …

For us, this means a ton of fun!

A ton of fun, indeed.

It's also a ton of crap. Do you want some eye in the sky watching you walk into your favourite coffee shop and then tracking you as you head into your favourite fitness facility and then hum overhead while you drink your smoothie on a bench by the beach? These are all valuable data points for companies that might want to know exactly what you're doing when they serve you an ad for a free pastry or whatever.

Concerning that potential privacy invasion, the FAA has seemed to show before now that it's not really concerned with privacy. This isn't because the it is anti-privacy, rather because it is focused on air traffic control.

But since the rules are still being written, now is a great time to remember that there's more at stake than safety with drone regulations. Either the FAA – and respective authorities here in the UK and beyond – will need to decide that it ought to expand its purview or, more likely, there will need to be a rethink on who will watch the watchers in the sky.

Image via AdNear