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A Fleet of Drones is Flying Over the Valley Tracking Cell Phones

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Drones: first they come on sweet, with those cool fly-over videos of little-seen Downtown views or gnarly footage of surfers riding through Malibu Pier, then BAM, they're hovering over you like creeps, collecting your wireless data without you even knowing it. Tech news site Venture Beat reports that starting February 4, a company called AdNear has been flying drones over the San Fernando Valley and using WiFi and cell phone transmission signals to figure out the locations of mobile devices. Then they keep track of where you go.

AdNear is a "location marketing firm" and they're happy to report that, as far as they know, they're the first advertising tech company to use drones to gather wireless data—but also it's nothing out of the ordinary, they say. Wireless data doesn't include any personal information (e.g. phone number, name) or audio, so what's the big deal? It's just keeping track of where mobile devices exist and where they travel.

Once the drone picks up on a mobile device, the user is still anonymous, but the device is given a code that AdNear can use to identify it from that point on. The idea is that a business would hire AdNear and use the data to make ads pop up on the screens of "identified" phones and tablets of people walking by, encouraging them to walk into a business that they might not otherwise know about or be interested in. All that a phone or tablet needs to be located by one of AdNear's drones is an open app that uses cell or WiFi signals—even if the app isn't picking up the user's location itself. Los Angeles already has 250 bus benches equipped to do something similar; AdNear's innovation is making the tracking equipment aerial.

These drones don't take video or photos of anything or anyone, which a rep for AdNear says "is something which is scary, and that's not right." Alright, we found the line that won't be crossed—that's good. The test-run for this data collection is set to last through March, "after which there may be commercial deployments." AdNear, which is based in Singapore, has said it already has more than 530 million profiles of mobile devices in "various Asian markets for its other location-based campaigns."
· Drones overhead in L.A.'s Valley are tracking mobile devices' locations [VB]
· 250 Los Angeles Bus Benches Ready to Track Your Location [Curbed LA]