Pando

As Facebook successfully tests its first drone, privacy questions loom

By Nathaniel Mott , written on March 27, 2015

From The News Desk

Facebook has successfully tested one of its solar-powered, Internet-delivering drones in the United Kingdom, according to a blog post from Mark Zuckerberg.

The drones are said to have the same wingspan as a commercial airplane, but are only expected to weigh about as much as a small car. This lightweight build should allow the aircraft to remain in the skies for extended periods of time.

Facebook plans to use the drones to deliver Internet connectivity to millions of people in developing markets unable to access the Web and, by extension, help contribute to Facebook's bottom line by interacting with its advertisements.

The need to display those advertisements informed a piece I wrote last year to discuss the "political and privacy implications" of Facebook's drones. I wrote:

It depends on advertising revenues, which means it gathers users’ personal information and keeps it for as long as it needs to. It already accomplishes this by collecting information on users’ location gleaned from their smartphones, following its users around the Web, and monitoring everything they’ve ever typed into its many text boxes.

Giving the company the ability to track the location of anyone using its drone-powered networks regardless of whether they’re interacting with Facebook or not would greatly increase the company’s surveillance capabilities. Allowing it to do so via devices that can capture aerial imagery — and, with the right equipment, look through walls — would be like giving the company a crystal ball. I then imagined some of the ways Facebook could use these drones:

Maybe the company could use aerial imagery to see that the paint on top of someone’s car has started to peel, a perfect opportunity for an auto shop to advertise its painting service. Perhaps it could monitor the users accessing its networks and determine who is spending time with whom without either of them ever mentioning it on Facebook. Then the company could use its vast databases to figure out that this person is spending more time with someone who isn’t his wife and use that information to advertise chocolates and lipstick remover. (It could also display an ad for a private investigator to the user’s wife — coincidentally, of course.)

Drones wouldn’t simply allow Facebook to bring Internet connectivity to more people; they would also allow the company to gather information about its users in even more ways. It seems we'll have to wait a while to learn how close to that dystopian future Facebook's drones get. The company still has to form partnerships with carriers to provide Internet access via these drones, according to a report from the Wall Street Journal, and those deals could take a while to come to fruition.

But the most recent advancements to these drones and Facebook's successful test in the UK show that the company is committed to this project. It's not a blue sky dream -- it's something that could eventually affect millions of people.

[illustration by Brad Jonas]