Drones: Another Target for Hackers

Add to the list of concerns about drones in U.S. airspace the chance of hacking and redirection by terrorists, researchers warn.

As if it's not bad enough that within a few years thousands of drones will be flying in U.S. airspace, now research shows terrorists may be able to turn them into weapons.

Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin found that by spoofing a GPS receiver on an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) anyone with the right tools and know-how can take over control of a drone and make it do their bidding. Their findings were first reported by Fox News.

GPS jammers are most commonly used to mess with tracking or navigation systems, as may have been the case when Iran took down a U.S. spy drone in December. Spoofers, on the other hand, are far more advanced and can control the navigation of a drone via distorted information that looks authentic.

Using a $1000 spoofer with a signal more powerful than the one coming from satellites, Professor Todd Humphreys and his team at the Radionavigation Laboratory were able to hack into a small surveillance drone and change its route and behavior. Their research also suggests detection methods for spoofing attacks.

"In five or ten years you have 30,000 drones in the airspace," Humphreys told Fox. "Each one of these could be a potential missile used against us."

Indeed, under the Federal Aviation Administration Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, signed into law in February, the FAA has to allow the use of UAVs by a wide range of private, commercial, and government organizations. These entities could do things such as track fugitives, patrol borders, scout property, transport things, manage traffic, monitor crops, manage land, and more.

Privacy Concerns

Privacy advocates have raised alarms and say that drones equipped with high-tech imaging and listening capabilities will be able to conduct unprecedented surveillance of civilians.

In a letter sent to the FAA in April U.S. Reps. Edward Markey (D-Massachusetts) and Joe Barton (R-Texas) note that many drones can carry video cameras, infrared thermal imagers, radar, and wireless network sniffers. "The surveillance power of drones is amplified when the information from onboard sensors is used in conjunction with facial recognition, behavior analysis, license plate recognition," they wrote.

All of that alone is enough to make a person shudder, but the notion that thousands of drones flying around could be hacked by malefactors is truly terrible.

Humphreys says the government needs to do something about the threat now; if the vulnerability is left unchecked drones could be rerouted to crash into planes or buildings.

One thing is certain, U.S. airways will be getting busier. Check out this map that shows the approximate locations of current and planned Department of Defense unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) activities inside the U.S. 

In addition to the privacy and safety concerns involved with these things, one has to wonder about the noise pollution created by 30,000 extra aircraft buzzing around. An official with the Miami-Dade Police Department told the National Journal, "Our drone looks like a flying garbage can, and it sounds like a weed whacker. This thing is very, very noisy. It wouldn't allow you to sneak up on anybody." 

Follow Christina on Twitter and Google+ for even more tech news and commentary and follow Today@PCWorld on Twitter, too.

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