We often hear about the amazing things that drones can do and will do. They can help find survivors after a natural disaster, deliver goods or medicine to remote places, or take magnificent aerial photography for real estate listings. We may even be using them as transportation someday. But what about the criminal use of drones and privacy concerns?
The way that people and businesses are using drones is evolving, for both the good and the bad — and there are a number of ways that drones are being used for illegal activities. British scientist, David Dunn, spent five years studying the bad behavior of drones (and their operators). He told the Smithsonian’s Air & Space publication that he has a longstanding interest in the vulnerabilities created by technological advancement. (1)
Criminals with an Eye in the Sky
Dunn says, “Phone cameras, fast processors, compact batteries, and live-streaming have given birth to a technology that gives a bird’s-eye view of the world, but the same technology can also violate the security provided by walls and fences.” He says criminals are seeing the drone as a new tool in their toolbox.
In the old days, you might see a potential burglar casing your home. They could be sitting in a car nearby, or sneaking around in your bushes. Now, you have to consider the fact that a neighborhood thief might be using a drone to see if you are home, if lights are on, if windows are open, and if there’s a prime opportunity to “stop by” unannounced.
Dunn claims that the most common criminal use of drones is for the delivery of contraband to prison inmates. He says, they can be flown to a prison window or exercise yard to deliver things like drugs, phones, and messages. He says the delivery of weapons to prisoners is also possible. They could also be equipped with explosives to help with a prison escape.
A Fox station in Atlanta recently reported that the Georgia Department of Corrections spotted at least 300 drones near two state prisons last year. There is no federal law against flying a drone near jails or prisons, but Georgia has now passed a state law to help keep them away from correctional facilities.
Drone Detection Over Prisons
Enforcement can be tricky. With current technologies and systems, drone operators have a good chance of getting away. The Georgia rules came after a pilot program for drone detection. The system would set off an alarm if one entered prison airspace, sending prisoners to their cells. Of the 300 drones detected, officials say they only seized seven of them. And from those seven, they were able to make just two arrests, from fingerprints. (2)
Those pilot programs are now over, and Georgia officials are debating the installation of a permanent drone detection system at those two facilities and 31 others. But how will the new rules deter this kind of drone use? They make the use of a drone near state prisons and county jails a felony. So, it’s a matter of getting caught, or not.
Aside from helping people in prison, drones can be used for the surveillance of just about anything. Peeping Tom’s and the paparazzi can use them to spy on neighbors and celebrities, or at bigger venues like a sports arena or concert stadium. They could potentially live-stream images to the internet, or use facial recognition software to spot certain individuals in the crowd. Many local governments have banned drone use at those kinds of venues, as a public safety issue, but those rules are spotty.
Illegal to Fly Over People
Flying over people or crowds in general is illegal at the Federal level, because it could be dangerous if the drone crashes. But there are new exceptions to that rule. The FAA just granted a waiver to one of the nation’s biggest general contractors so they can fly over people and monitor job sites. Drone safety system company, ParaZero Technologies, says this development is huge, because it’s been difficult to use drones in urban and suburban environments. ParaZero makes a drone that’s equipped with a parachute that was approved for this purpose. (3)
But there are plenty of drone operators who won’t bother to get that waiver. We’ve heard a lot about the danger of drones near airports, or the flight path of a plane. And new safety features are being introduced to protect our airspace from a wayward drone. But how likely would it be for terrorists to circumvent detection and other protective technology to orchestrate an attack?
Dunn says that terrorists in Iraq and Syria have perfected the use of smaller drones in recent years, and there’s growing concern that they may be used for an attack in Europe or the U.S. He says drones could be armed or used to herd people toward an explosive device. They are limited by what they can carry, so it may be difficult to deliver a large quantity of explosives to a target. But he says, “Their ability to deliver their attack with surprise, precision, and reach makes them a formidable and attractive weapon for terrorists.”
Drones are also being used to spy on law enforcement operations. In one case, they were used to interfere with a hostage rescue operation by the FBI in a big city. The bad guys apparently sent a swarm of drones to buzz agents, and flush them out of their hiding spots. They also live-streamed the drone attack and fed video to their co-conspirators. FBI agent, Joe Mazel, says, the fastest-growing way that organized crime is making use of drones, is for counter-surveillance.
Drone Rules are Evolving
The FAA is working on ways to better control the bad use of drones. For example, current guidelines state that operators must keep their drones within their line of sight, but many people apparently ignore that rule. The FAA is now proposing a rule that would require drones to be licensed and equipped with a remote I.D. to help law enforcement identify violators.
The FAA’s Angela Stubblefield said, in a Defense One blog, “Remote identification is a huge piece” in the fight against drone-assisted crimes. When Congress approves new FAA guidelines, she says that “weaponizing” drones will also be made illegal.
Rules Concerning Private Property
There are rules currently in place that drone operators must follow. Some of the basic rules include:
1 – Drones can be flown during daylight hours or twilight hours with lights.
2 – They may only fly as high as 400 feet
3 – They must be flown within a visual line of sight.
4 – They cannot be flown near airports or aircraft.
There are no federal rules about flying over private property, so homeowners can’t simply complain about a drone. What they can report is that a drone is being a nuisance, or flown recklessly, or violating local privacy laws. If the drone lands, the operator may be guilty of trespassing. It’s best to check on laws in your local area.
(1) Air & Space: Interview with David Dunn
(3) FAA Drone Waiver