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Drones and Their Predators

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As the technological capacities of drones increase both their popularity and their capabilities, we are already seeing the positive changes they can have on daily life.  Delivery drones (which are tested by the likes of big retailers like Amazon to deliver packages and restaurants like Chipotle to deliver food) are increasingly commonplace in our daily conversations.  But these delivery drones in no way represent the limit of what drones can do.  As with any new technology, there is a fair amount of skepticism, fear, and doubt among the public regarding the potential dangers caused by drones.  And though the potential benefits of this technology far outweigh the risks, there are nevertheless safety issues that need to be considered now. 

Recently, a team of researchers at Johns Hopkins discovered security flaws in a consumer drone that allowed them to wirelessly hack its operations. They found numerous ways to take control of the drone from a laptop, disrupt its flight, and make it crash. Even worse, another security researcher revealed that even the high-end drones currently used by law enforcement and emergency services are vulnerable to attacks.  Hackers could hijack and gain control of this highly sensitive equipment from a mile away (or potentially even farther).

So what does this mean? Hackers hijacking drones--is this really another thing we need to worry about? Well, at the current rate drones are increasing in number, this could be a massive problem if we don’t soon find a solution.  Currently, the drone market is around $600 million globally. However, within the next twenty years, analysts expect it to become a multi-billion dollar industry. Specifically? Upwards of $127 billion. With an industry that large, and with the new global economy potentially depending on it, it’s even more imperative that we find a lasting solution to the problem of hacking. If you imagine the effect a hacker can have by invading one website, just imagine what might result from a million package-delivery drones falling suddenly out of the sky. 

Additionally, an attack on drones could disrupt sensitive security operations, including police surveillance, gas and chemical plant inspections, or even the delivery of critical medical supplies and equipment.  In a worst-case scenario, a commercial drone weighing hundreds of pounds could be deliberately crashed into a crowd, resulting in mass casualties. With the recent proliferation of drones, threats like these should be taken very seriously. At the point when the drone industry really gets underway, and we find ourselves as reliant upon them as we have become on other technology like cell phones or the Internet, any tampering or destruction could jeopardize the whole economy, not to mention the very infrastructure by which we live.

Maybe the lesson here is in seeing the drone for what it is: a technical advancement that creates limitless possibilities for good while simultaneously exposing society to new vulnerabilities.  Of course, drones aren’t the only kind of device that can be electronically hijacked. Imagine driving down your street when, with no warning or explanation, your car begins to rapidly accelerate. Your brakes don’t work. Your radio switches to that country music station you hate, and the heat starts blasting through the vents even though it’s 90 degrees outside. Newer cars, with their wireless connectivity and sophisticated infotainment systems, are similarly susceptible to breaches in security.  In fact, just last year, two security experts wirelessly hacked into a Jeep Cherokee, taking control of it’s A/C, steering, brakes, and entertainment system. This prompted Jeep to recall 1.4 million vehicles in order to patch the flaw.  The Nissan Leaf was also revealed to be “hackable” through its companion app.

Protecting cars and drones from attacks are just two extreme examples of the challenges involved with keeping the “Internet of Things,” or IoT, safe. All “smart” objects (or objects that can be connected to other devices/people) are part of the IoT, including vehicles, wearable devices, mobile phones and tablets, drones, and even home appliances. These all connect to networks, which means they have the inherent capacity to be remotely accessed.  A 2010 study identified more than 500,000 publicly available devices with built-in security flaws, a conservative estimate of the total number of unsecure devices in the world. Keeping in mind this study was six years ago, and that the current rate of technological prevalence in the world is at an all time high, well, you can start to get an idea of the big picture.  The Internet of Things, on which we continue to grow more dependent every day, is putting us all at risk. Even if we never have a drone fall on our head, our basic security and privacy are nevertheless in danger until these vulnerabilities are addressed.

There is still a lot of work to be done on this, the frontier of the age of drones. Regardless of what steps we take, the drone industry is only getting bigger.  And because the benefits we could experience from drone technology are potentially endless, we must step up and protect this emerging industry.  Currently, there is not much in the way of discouragement against hacking—the sentences and punishment when hackers are apprehended are typically pretty light, and the more skilled a hacker is, the less likely that hacker is to be caught.  And so, rather than punitive actions, it makes sense to put the bulk of our effort into prevention.  Advancing encryption capabilities needs to be as important (if not more so) than advancing the technology itself.  The new world of drones, and of technology in general, will require a constant dedication of time and effort. We, as consumers, must remain vigilant about these new innovations. In the hands of those who want to propel the world forward, drones have the potential to become an immensely powerful tool, but until they are made less vulnerable to hackers, they will remain a potential threat to public safety.

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