The increasing popularity of drone aircraft — domestic, commercial, and military — has introduced a whole host of new security concerns. The problem is big enough that it is regularly discussed at security conferences, and is proving concerning to many security researchers.
We have compiled five quadcopter drone-related threats that are particularly worrying.
Drones That Can See You
No one wants to be spied on. So having a drone fly past your window – or worse, hover there, facing you – is particularly concerning. Remote controlled drones are increasingly fitted with cameras, enabling the user to view a live stream (or on some older models, a recording) of the footage.
In some ways, this is great. After all, some astonishing aerial shots can be achieved using footage recorded with drones, something that would prove extremely useful to amateur filmmakers working to a tight budget.
— Justin Reeves (@1JUS) September 10, 2014
But it is a privacy nightmare. Not only can dronecams be used to steal glimpses of spaceships in a galaxy far, far away outside hangars in the south of England, they’ve been employed by security services and criminals alike to observe targets.
Or people, as you and I know them.
Drones With Guns
It might seem like an idea from the Terminator movie series, but we know that military drone strikes are an increasingly common feature of combat in the fight against Islamic extremism in the Middle East. These UAVs are being used to pivot the whole nature of warfare, something that is presented to the public as a positive. After all, unmanned armoured vehicles are only controlled by the military and security services.
Although it would be extremely expensive to acquire UAVs, the philsophy of such devices can be carried through to domestically available drones. One DIY project with easily-sourced, existing materials later, there is clearly a greater danger to public safety from everyday drones that have been modified into killing machines.
What we’re talking about here isn’t a missile-firing drone; it’s a portable assassination machine, a drone wielding – and able to fire – a gun.
Is this the first step to remote gangland killings? The whole concept is utterly terrifying, with the possibility that drones could be used to deliver not just weapons, but death, beyond security screenings.
Hacking Quadcopter Drones
Like smart cars, drones are being shipped with wireless technology, but little is being done to truly secure this. The result is that drones are eminently hackable.
We reported recently of the case of a researcher who found a way of hacking and overriding the flight controls of a popular domestic drone. A bit of fun, you might have thought at the time. But knowing that such a hijack is relatively easy, how would you react to a drone that suddenly stopped responding to your actions and began flying aggressively, or was simply stolen from your control permanently?
Hijacking a drone isn’t only a problem for public safety, it’s a way to steal one of these devices.
When a Drone Crosses the Line
You can probably think of several scenarios in which drones should be carefully put away under lock and key until everything has settled down.
Natural disasters most definitely come under that description.
In September 2015, as wildfires ravaged Northern California, aircraft dispatched to control the fires were hampered by drones, controlled by nosy owners wanting to get a glimpse of the carnage.
California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection labelled the drone pilots as “irresponsible” with a spokeswoman Karen Kanawyer pointing out: “Someone will lose their home. All their memories – everything is going to burn up because we don’t have that other tool from our toolbox. A fire can turn catastrophic in the blink of an eye.”
While legislation has since been passed that restricts drone flights during an emergency, physical prevention using electronic jammers would seem to be the ultimate option. However, with drones being trialed to assist in search and rescue operations, using any sort of jamming or temporary geofencing seems shortsighted at this stage.
Drones in the Hands of Criminals and Terrorists
Could drones be the most dangerous toys yet?
We’ve already seen reports of drones being used by organized gangs to target particular homes, using the device camera (drone cams are particularly impressive) to see if the property is empty as well as “case the joint” – check for any security weaknesses, assess the quality of the goods within, and perhaps even offer them for sale.
This obviously goes beyond using Google Street View to pick properties – the live camera feeds give real-time information to the criminals. In the U.S.A., the notorious Tub Gang has employed drones to survey targets in New York and New Jersey, and reactions here on MakeUseOf prove that no one wants a quadcopter drone hovering outside of their window, with readers voting to shoot the devices out of the sky.
Even more concerning is the news that security services and authorities in the U.S., Germany, Spain, and Egypt have been involved with foiling at least six potential terrorist attacks utilizing drones since 2011. Throw in the fact that a drone crashed on the White House Lawn earlier this year, and you can see just how easy these small aircraft can break through security.
Who Is to Blame: The Drone Manufacturers or the Users?
Drone manufacturers add features based on demand, making sure the end product will appeal to the target market, which could be regular consumers, companies, or the military. After all, a $100 drone isn’t going to come with assassination capabilities.
However, all drones contain the same basic group of components: motors, electronic speed controllers (ESC) and a flight controller, a sensor block, the all-important GPS unit, remote control radio receiver, and a rechargeable battery. Navigation can be performed remotely or programmed using ground station software to instruct the device to find a route from A to B.
But in the technological race to produce the must-have, industry leading device, drone manufacturers are becoming irresponsible. The ease with which drones can be hacked is of particular concern, as the tools for doing it are available to anyone with a computer.
We’ve seen that drones, fun toys and gadgets that they might be to most of us, can be misused in many different ways. This is a shame, as drones can be used in so many entertaining and innocent ways. They are, after all, fun to fly, and those with cameras mounted on them can collect some superb aerial footage.
Drones can be used in competitive sport, either as racing vehicles, or as devices for filming coverage from above. Put simply, drones are here to stay. But where does the responsibility or their misuse sit – with the owners, or the manufacturers?
What Needs to Be Done?
We’ve grouped many situations and scenarios into our list of five, but if there is one thing that links them other than the irresponsible use of drones to breach security and privacy, it’s that legislation and government awareness of these issues is terribly out of step.
Other than forcing manufacturers to secure their devices and enforce geofencing (a means of blocking drone transit over particular locations), defense against drones is difficult, as outlined in a report by the University of Birmingham Policy Commission in October 2014.
“Fast, cheap, available micro RPA [remotely piloted aircraft], in particular, are difficult to defend against, given their ability to fly past and over obstacles to find their target.
Traditional thinking with regard to the defense of buildings, for example, has concentrated on perimeter defense and entry point control. RPA offer the prospect that these defenses might simply be bypassed.”
Do current privacy laws deal with camera mounted drones? Should you be able to shoot down a drone that has crossed your property boundary without permission? Is having the latest Blu-ray disc delivered instantly from Amazon really worth all of this?
There needs to be a very public conversation about this, and the lawmakers need to start listening. Tell us how you feel about it in the comments.
Image Credits:Scared young woman by Piotr Marcinski via Shutterstock