No PII In The Sky: AdNear Says Its Location Data-Collecting Drones Are Privacy Safe

drone 

Location data platform AdNear is going off-road with its data collection.

The Singapore-based company is in the midst of completing a series of tests using drones to collect wireless data, a key ingredient in AdNear’s audience profiles. AdNear has been conducting its drone experiments in several key markets, including Los Angeles, since January.

The drones, which have their cameras and phones turned off, collect publicly available Wi-Fi signals that allow AdNear to derive a user’s location when that person uses an app with AdNear’s SDK.

The company’s VP of sales and partnerships, Shobhit Shukla, is quick to point out that AdNear is not ad tech’s answer to the NSA.

“We’re always aware of the regulatory environment, no matter where we operate,” Shukla told AdExchanger at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona on Wednesday.

The LA tests caused a bit of a media stir over the last few weeks, prompting sarcastic headlines like, “There Are Creepy Drones Tracking Cell Phones In The Valley” and “Great, Drones Are Spying On Mobile Phone Signals Now” – but this isn’t AdNear’s first time at the data collection rodeo.

Back in the days before AdNear raised its first round of funding – $6.5 million in 2012 – the company, then a bootstrapped startup, used to put its tracking devices on the back of pizza-delivery vehicles and bikes to collect location and point of interest data. Later, once the funding rolled in, including another $19 million in October, AdNear, which does business throughout India and APAC, upped the ante through partnerships with taxi companies in more structured markets, including Australia.

“The idea of using drones is to improve our process of collecting publicly available signals, which is something we’d already been doing through taxis and bikes,” Shukla said. “Drones provide a little more freedom so we can get a little more granular and go where taxis can’t go. We’re fine-tuning our methodology."

The experiments are in the name of quality location data he said. Brand clients – AdNear works with the likes of Adidas, Audi, IKEA, Pepsi and Pizza Hut – are looking for accuracy if they’re going to spend on custom location-based segments.

“It’s a natural fit for any brand with an offline presence,” Shukla said. “They want to identify people who go to their outlets and their competitors' outlets, and they want to track them and send them different messages. It’s a massive opportunity.”

ShobhitShuklaAdNearAdExchanger got the inside track from Shukla.

AdExchanger: How does the AdNear tech work?

SHOBHIT SHUKLA: The goal has always been to build the ultimate methodology to get location from mobile devices. The way we did that before 2012 was to literally drive around in various cities and countries, capture wireless and cell tower signals and map it to corresponding latitudes and longitudes in a large database. From there, we would connect the data to an SDK we have with publishers and developers to help them resolve location when GPS data is not available, which can be 70% or 80% or even 90% of the time in some places.

Is AdNear a DMP or an exchange?

Around 2013 we started profiling users based on their location footprint. We’d look at historical location and behavior and time-stamp it. Then we’d buy access to offline data to try and create audience profiles.

The idea at that point in time was to be a mobile DMP and plug into trading desks and DSPs. But, as anyone can appreciate, the US was just starting to think about this and Asia was far behind. We took this data to potential customers, and even though everyone really liked the concept of running targeted campaigns using location data, it was a challenge because they couldn’t ingest the data. They didn’t have the infrastructure. So we created our own DSP and started running targeted campaigns for them.

Long story short, we’re a location data company, but we have done media campaigns because, when we started, the market was not quite ready yet. Even today clients are using us to buy media along with the targeting, but we’re increasingly transitioning into more of a DMP model. Our goal in the long term is to be a data company.

Where do drones come into that?

They’re an interesting way to collect data because you can program drones along specific flight paths in a controlled environment. Normally, we’d be restricted to the road, but drones allow us to easily do what would be extremely difficult in normal circumstances. The main reason we’re doing these tests is to see if we can use a mainstream format to collect more first-party data across markets.

What about the obvious privacy implications?

There have been some misconceptions about what we’re doing. The drones are only for the purposes of capturing open signals, not user-level data. We don’t shoot videos or take photos – any of that. The camera is disabled. The Wi-Fi signals allow us to get location data after the fact when a user is on their phone using an app. There is no device-specific information being collected in any way, shape or form.

And we’re very aware of the regulatory environment and the mindset in each market. In Singapore, for example, there is an extreme paranoia when it comes to data collection, as is the case in Japan. There are different laws in different countries and we’re trying to nail the logistics.

We always collect cell tower and Wi-Fi data, which enables us to get lat/long, but whatever else we collect depends on the market.

Do some markets have better data than other markets?

A market like the US has the highest-quality data and the highest quantity, as well, and that enables better profiling. The same is the case in a place like Australia or Singapore and Japan, despite the mindset around privacy. In every other market, there isn’t much good quality data that’s regularly refreshed or readily available. That’s why we connect with local research companies and data companies. We need to look at multiple sources.

How would a brand apply your technology?

Only about 20% to 30% of inventory has location data and it’s not always accurate. So, for one, brands can simply use the information we collect to target people with relevant offers. If someone has an iPhone, lives in Singapore and travels to Sydney and Tokyo frequently, an advertiser like Singapore Airlines could use that information to target that person with a gold membership card or a special loyalty program because the airline knows he or she is a business traveler.

But beyond that, advertisers can use location to gain consumer insights. A retailer can see what kind of people come to their store at a given time – or what kind of people are heading over to a competitor’s store at the same time.

And, of course, location data can also impact online/offline attribution. If a fast food chain runs a media campaign to drive in-store traffic, they can start to use mobile location to measure the impact of their media. We’re seeing a lot of interest from brands in that regard. They’re already using daa – now they also want to use it to understand their customers better and see how their ad dollars are being spent.

 

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