Drones spying on cell phones for Advertizing campaigns

Pierluigi Paganini March 05, 2015

The Singapore-based company AdNear is using a fleet of commercial drones to determine users’ location and deliver hyper-targeted ads.

Drones that spy on unaware people, a nightmare come true, apparently nothing new considering that it is a common practice of law enforcement and Intelligence agency. The bad news is that also a few advertising companies are also using unmanned aerial vehicles to monitor unaware users’ cell phone data.

It is sufficient that a smartphone is running an app transmitting via cellular or Wi-Fi to track a mobile user. Be aware, the app does not need to be sending location data to track it.

The Singapore-based company AdNear is using a number of small drones flying around the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles to track Wi-Fi and cellular transmission signals.

The company started its activity early February for commercial purposes, the principle is quite simple, AdNear uses drones to sniff out wireless signals from mobile devices and identify them through the device ID. The practice to collect device ID helps the company to track the movement of users to track their profile and discover their preferences.

The company uses a fleet of quadcopter drones equipped with cell phone tracking systems in order to deliver targeted advertisements to the users.quadcopter drones equipped with cell phone tracking systems in order to deliver targeted advertisements to the users.

The company publicly announced that data it collects are anonymous, this means that it doesn’t include any information that could be used to track specific users. In this phase of the experimentation, AdNear is testing location-mapping functionalities, in a next phase it plans to deliver targeted ads.

drones adnear advertizing

The company confirmed that has over 530 million user profiles covering various Asian markets for its advertising campaigns. The technique uses signals straight against the nearby towers or Wi-Fi hotspots to triangulate signals, that along with other indicators allow to calculate device location.

“At AdNear we always think of innovative approaches in technology. ” states the company 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 wireless data helps AdNear’s location platform precisely locate devices without the need of GPS or operator assistance. Today we started initial tests with drones to collect data. And the results have been fantastic!”

The use of drones bring a series of advantages to the company, as explained on its website, including better altitude coverage, radius beyond roads, GPS controlled flight path.

“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 stairs altogether,” the description reads. “For us, this means-a ton of fun!”

Now imagine that you are walking near a that wants to advertize its products. A drone could collect mobile signals to target advertising related to the products for a specific user in nearby.

Principal concerns related the use of drones for civil uses are related to privacy and security. Small drones are easy to acquire and, on the Internet, it is also quite simple to find off-the-shelf products that can transform these unmanned aerial vehicles in powerful spy machines or weapons.

In October 2014 a group of Israeli researchers demonstrated how to hack air gapped networks by using lasers and drones, meanwhile in December I wrote about the Wireless Aerial Surveillance Platform,  a small DIY drone that has the capability to crack Wi-Fi passwords, eavesdropping on Wi-Fi passwords, eavesdropping on cell phone calls and read text messages.

In March 2014, Researchers at Sensepoint have realized a software dubbed Snoopy that could be used to turn a drone in a perfect spying machine able to steal data from mobile devices.

The above cases are just a couple of examples of potentially dangerous user of  UAVs, for this reason the drone industry need to be regulated such as the possible used of these powerful machines.

Pierluigi Paganini

(Security Affairs –  Drones, Privacy)

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