The arrival of relatively cheap drones (or unmanned aerial vehicles, UAVs) that can be purchased and used by people other than the military and civilian “authorities” raises fundamental questions about privacy and security. To be sure, there is good evidence of the positive role that drones can play, particularly in providing humanitarian assistance, and in delivering supplies to remote regions, but insufficient attention is paid to their darker side. Increasingly, countries such as the UK are wisely seeking to control the use of drones near airports (see for example Civil Aviation Authority) and no fly zones are being created in sensitive areas (see noflydrones and the UK Air Navigation Order, CAP393). However, much less attention is paid to the implications of the use of drones for photographing or tracking individuals without their knowledge or permission. This is especially so when drones are used by those with malicious intent to monitor or photograph people’s activities in their homes or on their properties. In particular their use by burglars to scope properties is becoming increasingly common, and of growing concern to the police (The Guardian, 3rd April 2017).
One fundamental question that requires resolution is why, if people are allowed to fly drones over someone’s property, that person is not permitted to “take down” the drones? There seems to be a fundamental and unfair asymmetry here.
Broadly speaking there are three main ways through which drones can be taken down:
- by shooting them out of the sky with small missiles or guns;
- by catching them using larger, more powerful drones with nets; or
- by hacking their control software.
The first of these is problematic for most people, is probably illegal (except when used by the military and police), and could cause collateral injury to others. The second is undoubtedly feasible, and examples such as Delft Dynamic’s Dronecatcher, and the Tokyo police’s use of nets to catch suspicious looking drones, are becoming increasingly widespread. One of the best defences against unwanted drones is simply to use a more powerful drone fitted with a net to take them down.
Many drones, though, are susceptible to relatively simple hacking that takes advantage of insecurities in the wireless connections between users and their drones. The following articles present interesting advice for those wishing to hack drones and retain their privacy in the face of increasing drone surveillance:
- Nils Rodday, “Hacking a Professional Drone” (RSA Conference, 2016)
- Sander Walters, “How can drones be hacked? The updated list of vulnerable drones & attack tools” (2016)
- Wang Wei, “You can hijack nearly any drone mid-flight using this tiny gadget” (Hacker News, 2016)
- Dan Goodin, “There’s a new way to take down drones, and it doesn’t involve shotguns” (Arstechnica, 2016)
- April Glaser, “The US government showed just how easy it is to hack drones made by Parrot, DBPower, and Cheerson” (Recode, 2017)
- Pierluigi Paganini, “How to hack drones with just a $40 hardware from 2 km away” (Security Affairs, 2016)
- Kelsey Atherton, “This DIY device lets you hi-jack drones in mid-air” (Popular Science, 2016)
- Phil Sneiderman, “Here’s how easy it is to hack a drone and crash it” (Futurity, 2016)
- Ed Darack, “Drone hacking made easy” (Airspacemag, 2016)
Do please suggest additional resources of interest to those seeking to hack drones.
For those interested in the frightening potential for drones to be used as autonomous devices in warfare, this video produced to encourage the banning of autonomous lethal weapons is an absolute “must watch”. Much of this technology is already in existence, and being used to target and kill people who are deemed by the killer (currently most frequently a powerful state) to be undesirable. It is not difficult to envisage their widespread use, not only in warfare, in the future. All those responsible for developing such technologies have a responsibility to ensure that they are only used for good applications.
Being at the rally in Trafalgar Square today, supposedly against the proposed cuts in higher education, made me reflect on several aspects of the contemporary political process in the UK:
- First, it is great to see so many UK students for once standing up for something that they see as being a cause worth fighting. For far too long, many students here, unlike some of their peers elsewhere, seem to have been apathetic and lazy, unwilling to engage in any form of radical political protest, with the majority preferring instead to enjoy the good life associated with undertaking a minimal amount of academic work and a maximum amount of partying. There is an irony here, though, as a young person on the train sitting next to me on the way home said “They are only looking after their own interests, in’t they. They can afford to!”
- To gain groundswell political support, it is essential to have a simple message that people can sign up to – even if their own various interpretations of that message are different. It is easy to unite people around a simple theme of complaining against ‘cuts’ that will affect them, but this hides the complexities surrounding the restructuring of UK universities and higher education.
- At the heart of today’s protests were people intent on challenging the police – seeking to provoke them into violent retaliation. At least whilst I was there, it was remarkable how calm the police remained against what many of them must have seen as being unprovoked and unfair abuse. What struck me most about this was that many of those hurling the abuse chose to hide their identities through masks and hooded clothing, whilst individual police officers were fully identifiable by their ‘numbers’. I do not want to be seen as an apologist for the police, and of course there have been cases where individual police officers have over-stepped the mark, but there is a real irony here in that protestors in the UK are indeed able to protest – peacefully – because, in general, the police have tried to be even handed in maintaining order and permitting people of all political persuasions to express an opinion.
- I was amazed at how little anyone in the crowd seemed really to care about what, to me, matters most, the destruction of university based research excellence in the UK! I have written at length elsewhere about this, but the protests convinced me even more of the importance of differentiating between ‘universities’ and higher education. We need fundamentally to restructure UK higher education, and this should involve a very dramatic reduction in the number of students going to ‘universities’. Instead, we should provide high quality and appropriate training and ‘education’, to fit all young people for the sorts of employment that they will subsequently enter. Let’s create outstanding opportunities for young people to gain the skills and education that they need – but let’s not pretend that the institutions in which this takes place are universities.
- And yes, of course, universities should be free for those able to benefit from the research-led opportunities that they provide, and for students who are committed to exploring the boundaries of knowledge diligently, rigorously and with enthusiasm!
- Finally, I find it amazing that according to the Guardian, Vince Cable, “the cabinet minister in charge of tuition fees, said today he was prepared to abstain in a key vote on the government’s policy if that was what fellow Liberal Democrat MPs decided to do as a group. The business secretary said he was prepared to take the unprecedented step of not backing his own proposals for the sake of party unity”. How can the Secretary of State responsible for the introduction of increased tuition fees not vote in favour of them? He should surely resign forthwith if that really is his view.
The extent of state surveillance in the UK increases apace. Imagine my surprise when I saw this police car with a surveillance camera on the roof when I was recently passing through London Heathrow!
Perhaps we should all start taking photographs of those who are taking photographs of us while we are going about our day-to-day business!
What happens to all the photographs that the police take of us? Imagine what would happen if we all asked for copies of such photographs under Freedom of Information legislation! Just because it is possible for the state to photograph its citizens and store this information does not mean that it is right for the state to do so.