Marketing Drones Scanned Los Angeles For Cellphone Location Data

Spyware? More like skyware!

DJI Drone

DJI Drone

Walter, via Flickr CC BY 2.0

Acting as cheap flying cameras, drones already raise a lot of questions about privacy. But it's not just aerial photography people should worry about with drones. Earlier this month, AdNear, a Singaporean marketing company, flew drones with sensors that could detect cell phone signal strength and WiFi over part of Los Angeles. The drones identified and located people by the devices in their pockets, so that businesses could send highly-specific ads to their smartphones. The company praised this cyberpunk dystopian idea in a blog post, saying:

The usage of drones for location data collection would tremendously reduce human intervention and ease the process of collating data in inaccessible regions. Drones will also enable quick assimilation of a large-scale location data, which would mean faster new market entry for us, since it does take much higher effort at present. We are talking a new level of scale all together.

AdNear's business model is built around "location-based advertising," where people walking about their daily lives are identified by their smartphone signals and then sent ads or promotions for nearby companies. This isn't a location-based app where people check in and see recommendations for what's nearby, but instead passive potential customers are identified by their mobile devices.

Think of it like the cookies from third party advertisers that websites store on users' browsers while they're visiting the site. With cookies, a file placed by an advertiser picks up that a person searched for shoes on Amazon; then that cookie might advertise shoes to them on the next page they visit. AdNear's drones act like these information-gathering cookies, just outside of your computer. They scan cell tower signals and WiFi signals, so when a cellphone walks by a shoe store, an athletic shoe company can advertise to that customer on their mobile device.

How does it find those signals? Latanya Sweeney, formerly the Federal Trade Comission's Chief Technologist, explains in a blog post:

As you carry your phone throughout the day, it is constantly emitting wireless probes to find local networks with which to connect. These probes, more formally known as "probe requests," include a unique number – called a media access control address or “MAC address” (having nothing to do with Apple Inc). Manufacturers install unique MAC addresses in each phone during fabrication. Anyone can setup wireless sensors to record the appearance of your phone’s probes to track where you are and where you have been –say, where you are when you're ambling through a store or mall, or when you're walking or driving down a street.

An AdNear's marketing campaign for Adidas in India wanted to find customers who were near an Adidas store, visited coffee shops or malls, and also visited gyms. AdNear was able to find potential customers who met all those traits just by scanning for WiFi and cellphone signals, and then made it so ads showed up on their phones or tablets when they were within about two miles of an Adidas store. Location information isn't exactly private, personal data, but a company doesn't need many location data points to identify an individual.

Other than the legally unclear use of drones for a commercial purpose, there isn't anything explicitly illegal about scanning people's cell phones and WiFi, and then using that information to send them ads. But just typing that sentence makes me want to take a shower.