Attack of the Drones – guest post from Julia McCarron – Advent IM Director

So this week came the worrying news that mobile phones attached to drones can hack Wi-Fi devices and steal our data. That Star Wars script of yesteryear could be coming into its own! Oh hang on … that was Clones not Drones J But seriously, the use of drones in warfare is becoming more and more prevalent, so could their use in cyber hack-attacks become a common threat too?

Image courtesy of Victor Habbick at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Victor Habbick at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Drone usage in war and the fight against terrorism is a concept that’s been explored by TV and film script writers for a long time. (SPOILER ALERT: An insight into my television habits coming up). 5 years ago an episode of Spooks saw an American drone hacked by the enemy in Afghanistan. An episode of NCIS a couple of years ago saw a systems engineer steal a surveillance drone for the purposes of selling it to a terrorist group who then bombed a high profile event attended by the US military. An episode of Castle saw a government drone hacked and used to kill a government whistleblower. Far-fetched? Maybe. Possible? Definitely. Likely? Well we would hope not! But as we often see, TV dramas have a nasty habit of bringing reality to our screens and indeed drone usage has been part of our warfare arsenal since 1959, albeit they were unsophisticated unmanned aircraft essentially.

Drones have many other uses aside from warfare, cyber or otherwise. The US Navy for example uses tiny drones called Cicada containing sensor arrays that monitor weather and location. But they also have microphones that can eavesdrop on conversations within their vicinity. A useful tool for espionage?

Since 2013 the Police Service Northern Ireland have deployed drones as surveillance cameras to support policing operations during royal visits, political summits, the Belfast Marathon, searching for missing persons and the Giro d’Italia. Arguably a positive use of unmanned aerial vehicles as crime prevention and detection aids and possibly deterrents.

In July this year, a student Videographer shot footage of 4 young people running across a school

Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

roof in Northern Ireland. He lived nearby and spotted them on the roof, so sent his drone out to inspect what was going on. The children got spooked and jumped down, running for cover.  Private use of this nature however does open up a wider privacy issue in the same way that CCTV coverage does.

So how can they be used to steal data? Researchers at the National University of Singapore announced on Monday that by attaching a mobile phone containing two different apps to a drone, they successfully accessed a Wi-Fi printer and intercepted documents being sent to it. The apps were designed so that one detected open Wi-Fi printers and identified those vulnerable to attack and the other actually detected and carried out the attack by establishing a fake access point, mimicking the end device and stealing the data intended for the real printer. These are techniques they claim that ultimately could be used by corporate spies for industrial espionage, or indeed by terrorists.

As drones are yet to become common place in our everyday lives, it is likely that we would spot the physical threat before the cyber attack occurs. Today. But what about tomorrow? In the last 30 years technology has taken over our lives. Who would have thought we’d all be carrying around a telephone in our back pockets, that’s also a computer and literally voices, “Don’t forget it’s your Mother’s birthday”!

At some point, in the not too distant future, seeing drones flying above our heads will become the ‘norm’. And that’s when our guard will be down and drone attacks won’t just be connected to air strikes but cyber hack-attacks too.

Its 1984 meets Star Wars but this time it will be ‘Attack of the Drones’. May the Force be with us all!

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