Not too long ago, devices powered by Artificial Intelligence (AI) were considered a futuristic novelty—but these days, not so much. Our dear friend Alexa now comfortably resides in well over 30 million American homes, and we may soon see drones delivering groceries and other goods straight to our front doors. But this particular development has a lot of people thinking. In 2015, Amazon successfully delivered its first products by drone delivery. And, in May of this year, Uber announced it was in the early stages of testing drone meal delivery. Who doesn’t want their burger airlifted to their doorstep, right? Well, in a study carried out in December 2017 by Pew Research Center, 54% of the public thinks drones should not be allowed to fly near people’s homes—even if it means Chinese food without leaving the house.
Defining a Drone
Drones, also known as Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPAs) or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), first drew attention when they were used during the war in Afghanistan and more recently in Korea. Because drones are becoming increasingly smaller, lighter, and cheaper, more companies and individuals are gaining access to the bird-like mobile devices.
Although people tend to lump drones together, they are not all created equal. Recreational drones are responsible for most accidents and near accidents, as they are used more in the public space and with less supervision. In contrast, industrial drones are operated in strictly defined locations, like industrial sites and other protected locations, which presents way less risk for people. They also have a built-in mechanism which prevents the drone from operating in unsolicited areas. This means in the future, dozens of drones could feasibly take over urban skies and give people the convenience of drone pizza delivery without compromising their privacy.
Hackers and Drones
Drones are a great vehicle for hackers looking to penetrate the security of computers and networks. Not only can drones be hacked in flight, causing them to crash, but the craft also can be used for stealing sensitive information from the public. It wouldn’t be hard for a drone to hover 150 feet above a park, broadcast a WiFi signal overhead, and then grab sensitive information from anyone using the network, for instance.
There are, for instance, reports of drones loaded with a Raspberry Pi that can land atop a data center and steal sensitive information. The Raspberry Pi is a low cost, credit-card sized computer that plugs into a computer monitor or TV, and uses a standard keyboard and mouse. It is a device that enables people of all ages, and intentions, to explore computing, and to learn how to program in languages like Scratch and Python.
There have been reported instances where a drone will land on top of a building and run out of juice—but still come equipped with a separate power source for its components, so it can continue to sniff and transmit data over time. It may appear rusted and dead, but the components will continue to surveille the environment.
The threat of corporate espionage is real. In early October of 2018, Bloomberg reported an attack by Chinese spies that reached almost 30 U.S. companies, including Amazon and Apple, by compromising America’s technology supply chain, following extensive interviews with government and corporate sources. This attack was something graver than the software-based incidents the world has grown accustomed to seeing. Hardware hacks are more difficult to pull off and potentially more devastating, promising the kind of long-term, stealth access that spy agencies are willing to invest millions of dollars and many years to get. The kind of stuff James Bond would love.
New Regulations Protecting Our Privacy
Just last week, the Associated Press reported a new Pennsylvania law will penalize the use of drones for spying purposes. Governor Tom Wolf signed a bill on Oct. 12 establishing a $300 fine on those who use drones to violate another individual’s privacy or to put others in fear of potential harm. The bill also institutes a fine of up to $25,000 and a 10-year prison sentence for those who use drones to enable the shipping of contraband to a prison inmate.
Pennsylvania House Representative Jeff Pyle said the bill was created in response to the popularity of drones and its possible use to consciously spy and maintain surveillance of other individuals. In 2015, during the pope’s visit to Philadelphia, the Federal Aviation Agency designated the city as a “No Drone Zone.” Those who did not follow this prohibition were subject to criminal and civil charges. Then, in 2017, drones were banned from flying over Philadelphia’s Independence National Historical Park, home of the Liberty Bell.
In addition to privacy concerns, and potential conveniences of drones, there are some real security risks to take into consideration. As the use of drones increases, so do drone-related accidents. With some one million drones entering the airspace globally each month, the prospect of securing them is becoming more and more daunting. Think of nearly any worst-case scenario, and you can probably do it with a drone.
From airspace safety, to smuggling to high-tech corporate espionage, drones present a host of new concerns for civilians and corporations alike. Many prisons across the U.S. are working to stop drones from smuggling everything from drugs, pornography, and smartphones to prisoners. Just last year, a fight erupted at an Ohio prison after a drone dropped heroin into the exercise yard. Drug cartels have also used drones to ferry their wares across the U.S. / Mexico border. So until we can find a way to secure the air space of drones, they simply pose too many risks to society.