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. The whole program sounds pretty freaking shady, and the 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 Southland 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!
It's also a ton of bullshit. 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 doughnut or whatever.
Let's keep this kind of thing in mind as we look forward to the promising future of drones-for-profit. There are seriously a ton of good things that commercial drones could do for the world, from helping farmers grow crops to helping communities recover from disasters. These are good things.
Unfortunately the FAA's shown us time and time again that it's not really concerned with privacy. This isn't because the agency hates privacy, but rather because it is focused on air traffic control for the time being. But since the rules are literally still being written, now is a great time to remember that there's more at stake than safety with drone regulations. Either the FAA will need to pony up and decide that it ought to expand its purview or -- more likely -- we need to figure out who will watch the watchers in the sky.