Calls Growing for Federal Action to Combat Drone Espionage

Drone industry watchers have debated for years how vulnerable their aircraft are to being hacked.  Some opportunistic companies have promoted dire and unrealistic scenarios of terrorists wresting control of commercial drones to attack and destroy US installations or commercial buildings much as Bin Laden did during 9/11.  Drone experts discount those fears, noting that no technology exists to allow hostile parties to sabotage, let alone commandeer, a drone while in flight.  But the threat of hostile parties using their own drones to conduct industrial espionage or even low-level sabotage cannot be discounted.  In fact, as more commercial and private drones enter US airspace with relatively few restrictions, the scale and scope of hostile activity is rising sharply, analysts say.

Corporate spies are beginning to land unmanned vehicles on office building rooftops where they deploy software to monitor the keystrokes of employees working inside.  In some cases, drones simply cruise by a building to steal images with a 4K camera or to listen in on confidential corporate meetings.  Some businesses have discovered incapacitated drones on their rooftops during basic security sweeps.  While the drones can no longer fly, the computers attached to them are still fully functional; they may have been sending out stolen data for months.

Major U.S. companies that have suffered drone espionage have tried without success to get law enforcement to intercede.  Dow Chemical, for example, regularly reports evidence of drone espionage to local police who are bound, by law, to defer to federal authorities, who are limited in what they can do. The FAA is mainly concerned with ensuring air traffic safety not with restricting drone use.  While current FAA regulations do prohibit flights near airports and most government buildings, they do not apply to industrial plants or commercial property generally.  Unless foreign terrorist activity is suspected, Dow and other companies are left to fend for themselves

Some larger companies do take matters into their own hands, and the measures they employ are fairly simple. Corporate IT teams or security personnel may scan the radio waves for drone signals nearby. They may sweep their premises for USB flash drives that drones might drop to engage in surreptitious recording.  Visual intrusions may be somewhat more difficult to detect as corporate security cameras generally focus on building grounds and entrance ways, not  air space. (A number of boutique companies have begun selling drone air surveillance systems – and sales, so far, are brisk).  As a last resort, companies can choose to deploy their own drones to provide regular ongoing radio and visual surveillance of their own  facilities.

Is it time for the federal government to get involved?  Some industry associations think so.  The last major regulatory push occurred back in 2015 when the FAA issued widely praised  guidelines that caused the commercial drone market to explode.  Now, it’s apparent that the market’s largely unregulated growth – intended to support free enterprise as well as private recreation – may have boomeranged.

Last month, the Biden White House released the first whole-of-government plan to counter manifold threats from drones. The Domestic Counter-Unmanned Aircraft Systems National Action Plan outlines eight actions intended to close critical gaps in current policy and law that leave America’s military installations and commercial enterprises exposed to drones.  The plan calls for more restrictions on commercial drone flights, expanded criminal and civil enforcement, and new federal guidelines on the manufacture of drone detection equipment.

It’s a start, less a push for new legislation, which is probably a few years away, than a broad framework agreement that can guide the discussion and try to balance the often fiercely competing interests of various stakeholders.  Private hobbyists have long had the right to operate small drones with relatively few restrictions.  However, drones are no longer a niche market.  Companies and the country as a whole now stand to reap enormous benefits from drone expansion and innovation, which should be encouraged.  But drones also have the ability to be more invasive and potentially more destructive than ever before.  It’s an enormous opportunity – and an enormous challenge –  that the country is just beginning to grapple with.

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