Security wars: Attack of the drones

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commonly known as drones, represent a growing security risk.

A drone capable of locating and hacking into wireless networks is now available for as little as $2,500 (£1,600). Drones with high quality video cameras retail for $1,000 (£640) upwards and one US enthusiast successfully fitted a handgun into an inexpensive store-bought drone.

US-based company Aerial Assault unveiled a drone at the Def Con hacking conference in Las Vegas on 9 August that is any CIO's worst nightmare. The drone, which costs only $2,500, includes software capable of looking for weaknesses in any unsecured wireless networks in range. It records information about vulnerabilities while capturing the precise GPS coordinates of the target.

The drone is capable of hovering above an office or military facility and hacking into a corporate network, military installation, hospital or power facility. In the hands of a ruthless organised criminal gang (OCG) or, worse, a terrorist group or hostile foreign power, this device is a formidable weapon.

At the end of July, the US Department of Homeland Security announced that there had been at least 500 separate incidents since 2012 of drones hovering over sensitive sites and critical installations including military bases and nuclear plants. In January of this year, a drone even crashed in the grounds of the White House.

Drones could be used as assassins

There are also fears that some drones could be used as assassins after a man in Connecticut posted a video of a customised drone armed with a handgun. The video shows the drone firing shots by remote control.

Such a device could be armed in one hemisphere but remotely controlled by an OCG or a terrorist group from another. Legislation in the West is now lagging so far behind the technology industry's speed of innovation that local police told the assassin drone's creator that he had broken no laws.

OCGs are beginning to use drones in place of human accomplices for crimes such as drug smuggling. Earlier this month (August), two men in California pleaded guilty to using drones to smuggle 30 pounds of heroin from Mexico into the US. There are also fears that drones could be used to interfere with aircraft either by hacking into their control systems or by simply colliding drones into a commercial aircraft. The European Regions Airline Association (ERA) is now calling for “swift action” to protect passengers and residents after what are reported to be "numerous" near-misses between and aircraft.

The latest generation of drones has taken law enforcement and the security forces by surprise. These devices bear only passing resemblance to the starter kits that initially became available a year ago. For example, the Turbo Ace Matrix, which retails for £2,284, is constructed for professional grade photography and filming. It has a one-metre wing span and a triple carbon fibre deck build. It's range is 1.2 miles and it comes complete with an eight-inch monitor for viewing what is being videoed.

Although it may not necessarily have been the intention of the Matrix's manufacturer, US-based company Turbo Ace, this high- tech drone is a highly effective tool for anyone bent on corporate or military espionage. In addition to taking film of sensitive areas that are otherwise inaccessible by road or on foot, the Matrix could easily be used to spy through office windows, relaying every screen shot and key stroke by a key member of staff straight back to an OCG, who can then use the information to take control of the corporate network. In most countries, there is, as yet, no effective legal framework to protect companies or private individuals from intrusive drones.

And while a carbon-fibre aircraft with a one-metre wingspan might easily be spotted hovering outside an office window, drone technology is evolving very quickly. It has been reported that the Western military powers, which already use fighter drones in warfare, have been experimenting with miniaturised inconspicuous drones that can also be used for video surveillance.

Drones so small they resemble flying insects

The British Army, for example, already deploys the Black Hornet, a drone so small that it fits in the palm of a hand but which carries three digital video cameras. The US military is also known to have been developing surveillance drones that are so small that they resemble flying insects. Peace protesters claim to have seen such devices at public rallies in New York and Washington DC. The FBI, the CIA and other US security agencies, however, say that the devices have not been deployed in the US in this way.

This begs the question that, if such devices have been spotted in the US, then who exactly is deploying them? In the digital age, the gap between military and civilian technology is constantly narrowing and there are growing fears in the security industry that miniaturised drones may soon become available to OCGs and terrorist groups via the Dark Web. There is also the growing that military drones, some of them armed, could be hacked into by terrorists or hostile powers and diverted from their targets or even made to attack their own side.

In their attempts to control and monitor the battlefield remotely, the West's militaries may have developed a surveillance technology that may have now opened a whole new Pandora's Box of security concerns.

Stuart Poole-Robb is the chief executive of the security, business intelligence and cyber security adviser, the KCS Group Europe.