Drone deliveries will leave privacy concerns up in the air

A recent MIT Media Lab publication discusses a customer’s dilemma: convenience or privacy?

In the future, when you wake up one morning, the chirping birds you hear may very well be replaced by the whirring motors of drones. Drone delivery services may become ubiquitous soon enough as drone operating prices decrease and demand for rapid delivery options increase. But what will they imply for consumer privacy?

A paper from the MIT Media Lab, lead authored by PhD student Alex Berke, stated that drone deliveries introduce a security risk for their customers because of how consumers can be tracked. These privacy risks are a result of safety regulations by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that mandate drones to signal their in-flight locations to the public. This means that any third-party can view the drone’s broadcasted location, track its flight patterns, and reason where the drone might end up. 

Breaching this privacy could also lead to consequences like more targeted advertisements to problems with personal information.

“[Companies] have control over this data, and when users are opting to use these services, they are basically trusting them to use this data appropriately,” Berke explained in an interview with The Tech. “But with [the FAA’s] remote ID rule, anyone can set up a sensor network and therefore collect the location information of interest.”

Berke’s study focused on two types of delivery methods: ground vehicles and flying drones. When given a choice between the two options, Berke’s study discovered that people are more inclined to choose ground vehicles because they perceive it to be more privacy-secure.

This then begs the question of what we can do to protect consumer privacy. Berke proposes obfuscating the delivery paths by implementing several stops.

“Alternative routing strategies could be used by the delivery companies to mitigate these privacy risks,” Berke explained. In her paper, Berke gives the example of how a drone can stop at multiple stores before stopping at customers’ addresses. By adding intermittent stops at different locations, the drone’s goals can be mostly concealed under different delivery orders.

“You can imagine that companies could offer more private routing where that might then be an additional delivery fee or wait time,” Berke said. “Those are added costs at the cost of privacy.”

Consumers are indeed willing to pay more to protect their privacy, as when faced with the same time and cost to deliver, users were more inclined to choose ground vehicles as opposed to drones without privacy-enhancements.

“What we did show in the paper is that when the privacy-enhancements weren’t offered in delivery, there was that difference where people chose the ground vehicle four times more often,” Berke stated.

The four times increase corresponds to an 80 percent chance of choosing a ground vehicle over a no-privacy drone. However, this gap narrowed when options for privacy-enhanced drones were available, as the probability of choosing either a ground vehicle or drone became nearly the same.

From Berke’s data, consumers were generally more reticent to use anything that will compromise their privacy. These concerns extend across demographics, as Beck said that “privacy-enhancements have a bigger impact on female consumers,'' and that “younger consumers care more about privacy-enhancements.”

But even so, the best defense against these potential privacy breaches might be to simply see where the drone delivery trend will go. When asked how to balance the right to privacy and the convenience of drone deliveries, Berke answered that “we shouldn’t assume drone deliveries will become commonplace.”

“Maybe [drone deliveries] will get rejected by the public and not really take off,” Berke continued. “Or maybe not enough people will want them, and they just won’t be profitable. Who knows what’s going to happen.”

Although such a future may not be a possibility, consumers should still prime themselves to anticipate such changes. As we progress through the digital age, privacy can only become more luxurious and is one of the few commodities we cannot have delivered to our houses, whether it be by drone or ground vehicle.