Are Drones Safe From Hacking? The Answer May Surprise You!
They only went mainstream a few years ago, but drones are already making a big splash on the market. In a May 2016 article, Fortune magazine reported that drone sales tripled to $200 million in the last year. With people now able to buy them off a literal store shelf, it seems like drones will be a staple in fun and business.
While this new technology seems amazing, there are concerns about security risks. Would it be easy to hack into a drone, or steal information off it? According to these sources, it is easy for someone who knows how to do this.
John Hopkins Findings
Drone sales may be going up, but a 2016 study at John Hopkins University shows how easy it can be to bring a drone down. Lanier Watkins is a senior researcher of cybersecurity and professor at John Hopkins. He is among those who are afraid of flaws in drones.
Watkins' graduate students had to create a project that applies what they had learned. At his suggestion, five of his students chose to conduct experiments on a favorite type of drone. Their goal was to find flaws in the drone's programming and create software to take advantage of them.
In their first test, they used the WI-FI to send a thousand different requests asking for control over it. The sheer amount of applications overloaded the drone's computer and caused a shutdown. Once that happened, the drone came crashing down to the ground.
In the second test, they sent the drone a piece of data that was too big for it to process. Exceeding its flight app's buffer capacity, the data caused the drone to shut down for the second time. Another drone crash for the research team.
In the final test, the team sent a fake digital packet from a laptop to the drone's remote controller. It tricked the controller into thinking the sender was the drone itself, and then cut off its link to it. This cutoff led to the drone making what they called "an emergency landing."
Not only did Watkins and his students show flaws in drone security, but how easy it would be to shut them down. A hacker could then walk up and take the drone from the ground, like taking candy from a baby. A high-tech, expensive baby.
Greg McNeal, a contributor for Forbes, also wrote about potential holes in a drone's wall. In October 2016, he took part in a panel at the Federal Trade Commission's Fall Technology Series on drones. In a live demo, the FTC was able to access the camera feed on a Parrot AR drone and shut it off mid-flight. Granted, the Parrot AR was six years old at the time and sold for less than $200, but it raises concerns, regardless.
Afterward, McNeal talked with Jared Albon, the Chief Information Security Officer for AirMap. When asked if all drones were vulnerable to the kind of attacks the Parrot AR endured, Albon said this:
Any device is a potential target for an attack, especially devices that send and receive data remotely. This is true for the smartphone in your pocket, the garage door opener in your car, and the laptop in your office. Drones are no different. Like these other devices, drones can be targeted for software and system attacks.
Chief Information Security Officer for AirMap
Chief Information Security Officer for AirMap
In other words, drones are as hackable as any other type of electronic device.
Albon went on to say that drones can be subject to other kinds of hacking, due to being remote controlled. In a command and control (C2) hack, a hacker could block a drone's link to its controller, or take control with a fake link. Navigation could be over-ridden; the video feed could get intercepted and stolen. The potential for abuse is impressive.
The worst part, though, is that someone cannot always know when the drone is hacked. According to Albon, like a computer hack, it could look like a performance problem. From the operator's perspective, it could look like they are having response problems. In truth, though, an outside source could be stealing data or taking a drone for a joy ride to go spy on someone!
Sharper Shape CEO Weighs In
Aside from recreation or military, drones can see use as remote monitoring systems. Sharper Shape Inc., based in Grand Forks, North Dakota, uses them to monitor critical utilities, such as our nation's power grid. They upload everything they observe to utility organizations on the Cloud. That could be a very juicy target for a hacker soon, one that could lead to a lot of damage.
Ilkka Hiidenheimo, CEO of Sharper Shape and expert on drone security, has said that the way things are now, anti-virus protection is not enough. Anyone who has in his or her possession valuable information will have to face a hacking risk one day. Right now though, Hiidenheimo says that the biggest concern about drones is terrorists using them to deliver bombs.
Like Professor Watkins, Hiidenheimo thinks that security can come as an afterthought. The use of something like the Cloud, a method of online data storage, can lead to many unlocked doors if people are not careful. Moreover, unsecured drones may be the keys to unlock those doors.
What Can We Do About This?
So, now that we have established there are a lot of ways that drones are hackable, the question is how to prevent it. The short answer is we cannot. As Hiidenheinmo puts it:
Nobody can promise 100% security. If someone claims that, you know that he or she does not understand what he or she is talking about, or he or she is purposely lying to you.
CEO of Sharper Shape
What we can do, though, is to keep learning and adapting so that hackers will not get a leg up. People are already doing that.
In March 2018, three graduate students at John Hopkins teamed up with the Massachusetts-based company OnBoard Security to come up with ways to stop hack attacks on drones. Using OnBoard's software, the students managed to secure a drone's collision avoidance systems. This can prevent a hacker from fooling a drone into taking evasive maneuvers because of a crash.
Speaking of John Hopkins, Professor Watkins sent his group's findings to the manufacturers. The company never responded to the results, but Watkins hopes they inspire others to improve their products. That way, recreational drones will leave the factory with security already in place.
Hiidenheinmo and Albon both agree that information security should be a priority from the start of development. Simple, common sense standards would let the, no pun intended, drone industry soar. Software to protect data exchange, preventing attacks on internal GPS, failsafe programs. All these things can do a lot.
Basic standards won't be enough, though. Technology is always changing and adapting, and the people who use must do so as well. Hackers will still be probing for weaknesses, so companies need to keep learning. Above all, they must never think that their ship is unsinkable because it will sink.
But what can consumer's do to prevent drone hacking? A lot of the measures are out of a drone operator's hands. What a recreational operator can do, though, is be careful who they let touch the drone or alter it in some way. Be careful with it, like anything else valuable.
So, yes, there are plenty of ways that drones can get hacked as they are now. But there are also plenty of great ways drones can safe from hack attacks. It can be as complex as a company putting in extra security measures or as simple as keeping an eye on it when it is not used. As long as you know what to do, then you can help keep your drone safe from the prominent evil hackers.
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McNeal, Gregory S. "Key Questions About Securing Drones From Hackers." Forbes, 19 Oct. 2016, my.noodletools.com/web/bibliography.html. Accessed 5 Oct. 2018.
Shen, Lucinda. "Drone Sales Have Tripled in the Last Year." Fortune, Time, 25 May 2016, fortune.com/2016/05/25/drones-ndp-revenue/. Accessed 5 Oct. 2018.
Sneiderman, Phil. "Johns Hopkins grad students work to prevent hacking attacks on drones." HUB, John Hopkins University, hub.jhu.edu/2018/03/27/drone-hacking-protection/. Accessed 5 Oct. 2018.---. "Johns Hopkins scientists show how easy it is to hack a drone and crash it." HUB, John Hopkins University, 8 June 2016, hub.jhu.edu/2016/06/08/hacking-drones-security-flaws/. Accessed 5 Oct. 2018.