Cybersecurity: Drones Will Soon Become Both Predator and Prey

Friday, July 19, 2019

Steve Durbin

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In the coming years, commercial drones will become a predator controlled by attackers to conduct targeted assaults on business. Drones will become smaller, more autonomous with increased range and equipped with cameras for prolonged surveillance missions. Flying in close proximity to operating environments, they will also be used to conduct advanced man-in-the-middle attacks, degrade mobile networks or spoof and jam other signals.

Conversely, drones will become prey as they are targeted by attackers in order to disrupt dependent businesses. Drones will be knocked out of the sky and hijacked. Information collected by drones will be stolen or manipulated in real time. Industries that leverage drones to become more efficient, such as construction, agriculture and border control, will see their drones targeted as attackers’ spoof and disrupt transmissions.

Technological breakthroughs in drone technologies, combined with developments in 5G, big data, the Internet of Things (IoT), and the relaxation of aviation regulations, will mean that drones will become increasingly important to operating models. Organizations will rely upon them for delivery, monitoring, imagery and law enforcement, whilst attackers will embrace drones as their new weapon of choice. The threat landscape will take to the skies.

Justification for This Threat: Predator

Drones used in the military for reconnaissance, targeted missile attacks and battlefield intelligence have been commonplace for years now. However, the line between military and civilian usage has somewhat blurred over the last few years as smaller, unmanned aerial vehicles or quadcopters have become more popular and commercialized. Close calls have been reported more frequently in the media with cases of assassination attempts, near fatal crashes, injuries and spying all being recorded. Moreover, two high-profile incidents of drones grounding flights at London’s Gatwick and Heathrow airports took place in late December 2018 and early 2019, illustrating significant business disruption from drone activity.

Quadcopter-style drones, supposedly capable of carrying out electronic warfare and cyber-attacks, are currently being developed. For example, American-Italian contractor, Selex Galileo, recently built a small drone that can interfere with communication systems such as Bluetooth or Wi-Fi and can self-destruct if captured. Septier Communications is developing a drone that can eavesdrop on mobile phone calls, intercept other mobile data or force devices on a high-security 4G network to downgrade to an older, lower quality and less secure network. If terrorist groups, hacking groups or hacktivists managed to get their hands on this technology then their armory would be significantly enhanced.

Justification for This Threat: Prey

Drone-based delivery is expected to start in European countries in 2019 following the relaxation of air traffic regulations, allowing drones to fly out of sight and above 400 feet. This will revolutionize the supply chain, opening up a range of new attack vectors that hackers will undoubtedly target. According to Goldman Sachs, the forecasted market opportunity for drones will grow to $100 billion by 2020, helped by growing demand from commercial and government sectors. There are over one million active drone devices currently operating in test environments in the US alone, with over 100,000 pilots registered with the FAA.

Drone usage will be particularly prominent across the agricultural, construction and oil and gas industries as business models are adapted to take advantage of drone technology. Activities such as monitoring of crop yields, airborne inspection of oil pipelines and safeguarding of construction sites will be entrusted to drones as businesses look to further automate key processes. Fire and police services will use drones to greatly enhance their capability to locate people, whether that be survivors of an incident or persons of interest. All industries that leverage this relatively immature technology will find themselves targeted as attackers aim to take advantage of drones.

Like other IoT devices, drones currently have very poor security controls, making them vulnerable to hijacking. Commercial drones will become a fresh privacy concern as they begin to store sensitive information on board. The majority will be fitted with cameras or a range of sensors, collecting information such as GPS location, credit card numbers, email addresses or physical addresses. This type of information will be a prime target for attackers over the coming years.

How Should Your Organization Prepare?

If an organization is reliant upon drones for critical operations then diligent risk assessments need to be conducted, and controls must be implemented or upgraded to mitigate risk to the business. As drones take to the skies, organizations must become more vigilant and wary.

In the short term, organizations should determine how drones are likely to be used across the business and incorporate business continuity arrangements should these drones be disrupted and regularly update or patch drones.  Additionally, organizations should apply specialized technical controls such as signal jamming, geofencing and hardening Wi-Fi and protect locations from drone spying by installing blinds and curtains, mirrored windows or white noise generators.

In the long term, lobby drone manufacturers or providers to ensure that drones have security features incorporated and keep up to date with future legal and regulatory requirements, considering that they may differ or conflict across jurisdictional boundaries.

About the author: Steve Durbin is Managing Director of the Information Security Forum (ISF). His main areas of focus include strategy, information technology, cyber security and the emerging security threat landscape across both the corporate and personal environments.

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