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An Advertising Company’s Fleet of Drones Is Tracking Smartphones in L.A.

Alyssa Bereznak
National Correspondent, Technology
Yahoo Tech

Cellular-signal tracking drones, enjoying the palm tree-lined vistas of beautiful Los Angeles (via AdNear)

That drone above you? It may soon be tracking your location.

Following a long tradition of advertisers ruining fun things for everyone else, a Singapore-based marketing firm is testing drones that can track the location of people below them, using the Wi-Fi and cellular transmission signals from their phones. As if we needed another reason to be paranoid about drones!

The Singapore-based company, appropriately named AdNear, has been testing out the technology since early February around San Fernando Valley in the Los Angeles area, according to a report by VentureBeat.

AdNear’s main interest in tracking your location is, of course, selling you stuff. So, let’s say you’re taking care of some chores in the neighborhood and you’re using an app in your phone that requires a Wi-Fi connection or a cellular signal. Tracking software on a drone about 500 feet above you, being operated by a real human, will use that transmission, along with cell tower triangulation, to figure out where your phone is.

Then, according to AdNear’s director of marketing and research Smriti Kataria, the system registers the device ID of your phone and begins mapping out your location history in the area to create a unique profile of the spots you frequently visit. No names, phone numbers, personal information, photos, or videos are taken during this process. Your movement patterns, according to Kataria, are simply identifiable to the company through a numerical code.

The company then sells that information to their clients, most likely any businesses in the area who want to place ads in the apps you’re using or offer discounts as a way of enticing you to stop by.

Though this might sound like a new kind of advertising evil, AdNear has actually been collecting this kind of information for a while now. According to its website, ”till now AdNear has been using bikes, cars, trains, and even walking up the stairs to collect data including Wi-Fi and cell tower signals.” This is also similar to technology like Bluetooth beacons, which commerce has enthusiastically embraced.

Nevertheless, this news comes at a particularly high peak of general drone paranoia. As drones have surreptitiously appeared off-limits in spots like the White House lawn and, most recently, several Parisian landmarks, politicians, including the inimitable Rand Paul, have expressed their marked dislike for the technology. Additionally, regulatory movements like NoFlyZone.org, a site that allows you to request that your address be placed in informal off-limits zones on drone software, have begun popping up.

Under the Federal Aviation Administration’s new proposed drone regulations, AdNear, and any other company that wants to join in on the location-tracking fun, would technically be allowed to continue with this campaign, as long as the flying machine remains in sight of its operator. This means that, while our dreams of drone-delivered Amazon Prime orders have been dashed, companies like AdNear will remain in business.

In fact, the company already has plans to test this pilot program in Singapore.

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