‘Pandemic drones’: useful for enforcing social distancing, or for creating a police state?



BAGUS INDAHONO/EPA

Michael Richardson, UNSW

People in Western Australia may soon see more than birds in the sky, as the state’s police force has announced plans to deploy drones to enforce social distancing. The drones will visit parks, beaches and cafe strips, ensuring people comply with the most recent round of gathering rules.

As COVID-19 restrictions tighten around the world, governments are harnessing the potential of drones. From delivering medical supplies, to helping keep people indoors – drones can do a lot in a pandemic.

Since the outbreak began, China has used drones to deliver medical supplies and food, disinfect villages, and even provide lighting to build a hospital in Wuhan in nine days. Drone medical deliveries have cut transit times, reduced the strain on health personnel and enabled contactless handovers, reducing the risk of infection.

It’s clear drones are helping combat COVID-19, as governments use them to control and monitor.

But these measures may be difficult to rollback once the pandemic passes. And safeguards will be needed to prevent unwanted surveillance in the future.




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Aerial threat: why drone hacking could be bad news for the military


Drone use: clever, quirky and sometimes concerning

With cities on lockdown, drones have shown uncanny images of emptied urban landscapes from Wuhan and metros across the globe.

Social distancing has inspired some quirky uses by individuals, including walking the dog and asking for a date.

But the main game has been about control. China is using drones to enforce quarantine rules and deter gatherings that violate social distancing rules.

One viral video showed a drone scolding an elderly woman for not wearing a mask. In some cases, traffic police and municipal officials used drones fitted with speakers to order people home and break up mahjong games.

Flying at high altitudes, drones can help police and other officials monitor large areas to identify those violating restrictions. Similar tactics are being used in Madrid and Nice, with talk of deployment in many other places.

A defence for the ‘good drone’?

There are huge advantages in sending drones into disaster zones such as bushfires, or remote landscapes for search and rescue. Pilots can safely stream crucial vision from a drone’s optical and thermal cameras.




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Drones help track wildfires, count wildlife and map plants


But while “good drones” can be valuable in disaster, they have been criticised for giving drone warfare an ethical veneer by association with humanitarian work. Some have even argued that using drones at all risks tainting relief work, because militaries have played a major role in developing drone technologies that are also responsible for humanitarian tragedies.

Like all technologies, the question with drones should be about how they are used. For instance, inspecting the breached nuclear reactor at Fukushima with drones is sensible. But embedding systems of control that can be turned against civilians is its own disaster in the making.

Normalising surveillance

With high definition and infrared images streamed to command stations, China’s drones may be able to use facial recognition to identify specific individuals using its Social Credit System, and fine them for indiscretions.




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This level of social control may be appealing in a pandemic that could cost millions of lives. But it could also have chilling effects on social and political life.

Surveillance tools typically work best for social control when people know they are being watched. Even in liberal societies, people might think twice about joining climate or racial justice protests if they know they’ll be recorded by a drone overhead.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) used drones to capture scenes from the 2017 Black Lives Matter protests in Baltimore.
FBI / ACLU

Feeling like you’re constantly being watched can can create a kind of atmospheric anxiety, particularly for marginalised groups that are already closely monitored because of their religion or welfare status.

Putting more drones in the sky raises concerns about trust, privacy, data protection and ownership. In a crisis, those questions are often ignored. This was clear after 9/11, when the world learnt the lessons of surveillance systems and draconian national security laws.

The impact would hit home

Police in the west are already deploying drones for various purposes, including at sporting events in Australia. Our defence force is buying Reaper MQ-9B drones because they are cleared for use in civilian airspace.

We might be fine with delivery drones in Canberra, or disaster drones ferrying urgent medical supplies, but how would we feel if they were indistinguishable from drones piloted by police, the military or private security companies?

A team at the University of South Australia is currently designing a “pandemic” drone to detect virus symptoms such as fever and coughing from a distance. Valuable as that is now, this tool could easily be used to intrusively manage the public’s health after the crisis is over.

It can be difficult to see the long term impacts of choices made in an emergency. But now is the best time for policymakers to set limits on how drones an be used in public space.

They need to write sunset clauses into new laws so that surveillance and control systems are rolled back once the pandemic eases, and create accountability mechanisms to ensure oversight.The Conversation

Michael Richardson, Senior Research Fellow, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Aerial threat: why drone hacking could be bad news for the military



Are military drones a security threat to their own operators?
Gorodenkoff/Shutterstock

Mohiuddin Ahmed, Edith Cowan University and Paul Haskell-Dowland, Edith Cowan University

Unmanned aerial vehicles, more commonly called drones, are now a fundamental part of defence force capability, from intelligence gathering to unmanned engagement in military operations. But what happens if our own technology is turned against us?

Between 2015 and 2022, the global commercial drone market is expected to grow from A$5.95 billion to A$7.47 billion.

Drones are now being used in a host of applications, including agriculture, media, parcel delivery, and defence.

However, as with all IT technology, manufacturers and users may leave the digital doors unlocked. This potentially leaves opportunities for cyber-criminals and perhaps even cyber-warfare.




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Imagine a defence operation in which a drone is sent out to spy on enemy territory. The enemy identifies the drone but instead of disabling it, compromises the sensors (vision, sonar, and so on) to inject false data. Acting upon such data could then result in inappropriate tactics and, in a worst case scenario, may even lead to avoidable casualties.

UK cybersecurity consultant James Dale warned earlier this year that “equipment is now available to hack drones so they can bypass technology controls”.

Drones are relatively cheap technologies for military use – certainly cheaper than the use of satellites for surveillance. Off-the-shelf drones can be used to gather intelligence, without any significant development effort.

Meanwhile, governments have cracked down on illegal civilian drone use, and imposed no-fly zones around secure infrastructure such as airports. Drone manufacturers have been forced to provide “geofencing” software to avoid situations such as the recent drone strike in a Saudi oil field. However, cyber criminals are smart enough to bypass such controls and openly provide services to help consumers get past government and military-enforced no-fly zones.

It doesn’t cost much to skirt around the no-fly rules.
Author provided

Russian software company Coptersafe sells such modifications for a few hundred dollars. Anyone can buy a drone from a retail store, purchase the modifications, and then send their drone into no-fly zones such as military bases and airports. Ironically, Russia’s military base in Syria came under attack from drones last year.

Australia on the frontline

Australia is at the frontier of the military drone revolution, equipping itself with a fleet of hundreds of new drones. Lieutenant Colonel Keirin Joyce, discussing the program in a recent defence podcast, declared Australia will soon be “the most unmanned [air vehicle] army in the world per capita”.

It will be essential to safeguard every single component of this sophisticated unmanned aerial fleet from cyber attack.

When drones were developed, cyber security was not a priority. Let’s explore a few potential threats to drone technology:

  • drone navigation is based on the Global Positioning System (GPS). It’s possible an attacker can break the encryption of this communication channel. Fake signals can be fed to the targeted drone and the drone effectively gets lost. This type of attack can be launched without being in close physical proximity

  • with knowledge of the flight controller systems, hackers can gain access using “brute force” attacks. Then, the captured video footage can be manipulated to mislead the operator and influence ground operations

  • a drone fitted with sensors could be manipulated by injecting rogue signals. For example, the gyroscopes on a drone can be misled using an external source of audio energy. Cyber criminals may take advantage of this design characteristic to create false sensor readings

  • drones’ onboard control systems are effectively small computers. Drone control systems (onboard and ground-based controllers) are also vulnerable to malicious software or Maldrone (malware for drones). The founder and CTO of CloudSEK, Rahul Sasi discovered a backdoor in the Parrot AR.Drone. Using malicious software, an attacker can establish remote communication and can take control of the drone. Attackers can also inject false data to mislead the operators. This type of malware can be installed silently without any visible sign to the operators. The consequences are significant if the drones are used for military operations.




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As with traditional cyber-crime, it’s likely 2019 will see a sharp rise in drone-related incidents. However, these security breaches should not discourage the use of drones for personal, industrial or military applications. Drones are great tools in the era of smart cities, for instance.

But we should not forget the potential for cyber crime – and nowhere are the stakes higher than in military drone use. Clearly, the use of drones needs to be carefully regulated. And the first step is for the government and the Australian Defence Force to be fully aware of the risks.The Conversation

Mohiuddin Ahmed, Lecturer of Computing & Security, Edith Cowan University and Paul Haskell-Dowland, Associate Dean (Computing and Security), Edith Cowan University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.