March 26th 2015

Marketing Drones now flying over Los Angeles Area for Cellphone Location Data

By: Sofia Grafanaki

Panel 5

A Singapore based marketing company proudly announced last month that it started using drones in order to detect cell phone signal strength and WiFi transmission of cell phone users over part of Los Angeles. Using cell phone triangulation and other such methods, allows them not only to determine specific location data per device, but also their users movements and travel patterns. They can then target consumers with very specific ads, based on their route and what is around them, which coffee shop they are walking by etc.

This practice is not that new, the same company has been previously doing it using bikes, cars and trains in the past, but with the use of drones the scale changed drastically, raising even more privacy concerns relating to their use. While the company claims that it does not collect any personally identifiable data such as names or phone numbers, it does identify each user through the device ID in order to track them. And while the company is trying to use this distinction to respond to privacy concerns, it is widely accepted that the disctinction between PII and non-PII is not as efficient as it was once thought to be when the goal is to protect privacy, as the combination of non-PII from several sources can very often reveal a lot more information about an individual than one would expect.

In the case of this use of drones, there is also an issue with “consent”. Concepts of notice, choice and consent are criticized as weak protectors of privacy in the light of new technologies, but here it is not clear at all when they come into play, even in their weak form. At no point does a user have an option to not be tracked by these drones, like he would (at least theoretically) when using a website that places cookies on his computer. It seems that cellphone users don’t even need to have location services on their smartphones turned on for the tracking to happen, all that needs to be happening is the user to have an app open that is transmitting any kind of data through cell service or WiFi.