As drones have seen recent increases both in popularity and technical capabilities, we are already seeing the positive changes they can have on daily life. Delivery drones (tested by big retailers like Amazon to deliver packages and restaurants like Chipotle to deliver food) are becoming more commonplace in our daily conversations. But delivering packages in no way represents the limit of what drones can do. As with any new technology, there is a fair amount of skepticism, fear, and doubt about the potential dangers of drones. And though the opportunities far outweigh the risks, there are nevertheless safety issues that need to be addressed.
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 many ways to take control of the drone from a laptop, disrupt its flight, and make it crash. Another security researcher revealed that even the high-end drones currently used by law enforcement and emergency services are vulnerable to cyberattacks. Hackers could hijack and gain control of this highly sensitive equipment from a mile away (or potentially even farther).
Hijacked drones – is this really another thing we need to worry about? Well, at the rate drones are currently increasing in number, this could become a massive problem if we don’t address it now. Currently, the drone market is around $600 million globally. In the next 20 years, analysts expect it to grow to $127 billion. With an industry that large, and with the new global economy potentially depending on drones, it’s even more imperative that we find a lasting solution to the problem of hacking. Given the impact a hacker can have by compromising just one website, imagine the result of a million package-delivery drones suddenly falling from 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.
Once the drone industry really takes hold and we find ourselves as reliant on them as we have become on other technology like cell phones and the Internet, any tampering or destruction could jeopardize the whole economy, not to mention our infrastructure.
Maybe the lesson is that we need to see the drone for what it is: a technical advancement that creates limitless possibilities while simultaneously exposing society to new vulnerabilities. Of course, drones aren’t the only device that can be electronically hijacked. Imagine driving down your street when, with no warning or explanation, your car begins to accelerate. Your brakes don’t work. Your radio switches to that country music station you hate, and the heat starts blasting 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 its A/C, steering, brakes, and entertainment system, just to prove that it was possible. 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 to keep the “Internet of Things,” or IoT, safe. All “smart” objects (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 devices connect to networks, which means they have the capability 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 number of unsecure devices in the world. Keeping in mind that this study was years ago and the current rate of technological advances is at an all-time high, you start to get the big picture. The Internet of Things, on which we continue to grow more dependent every day, is putting us at risk. Even if you never have a drone fall on your head, your basic security and privacy are in danger until these vulnerabilities are addressed.
Regardless of what steps we take, the drone industry will only increase. And because the benefits 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 punishments are relatively light, and the more skilled a hacker is, the less likely that hacker will 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 as advancing the technology itself.
The new world of drones, and of technology in general, will require a 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 pose a threat to public safety.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.