Civilian Drones in US Could Possibly Be Hijacked for Use in Attacks

by Mark Karlin, BuzzFlash.com  |  published on January 25, 2013

The Federal Aviation Administration is planning on authorizing drone use that might result in 30,000 Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) cruising through US airspace in the next decade. (There are already drones flying intelligence and law enforcement surveillance over American territory.) Many of these will be for commercial use (for instance, FedEX is preparing to use drones for deliveries to smaller markets).

But as of today, such drones present a chilling possibility beyond the already invasive loss of privacy and crowding of the skies: using a non-encrypted GPS system, the drones can possibly be hijacked and used for destructive purposes, potentially as bomb delivery vehicles by domestic or foreign terrorists.

Assistant Professor Todd Humphreys of the Department of Aerospace Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin confirmed to BuzzFlash at Truthout that such a vulnerability exists. Humphreys developed the prototype for what is known as a “spoofer,” a device that can seize control of a civilian drone (military drones are encrypted and less vulnerable to hijackings, although they can be jammed and disrupted in certain circumstances – which possibly explains how the Iranians captured a fully intact CIA surveillance drone).

Last year, Humphreys and his aerospace engineering team at the University of Texas demonstrated to the Department of Homeland Security and the FAA how, with equipment costing less than $2000, a drone could be hijacked in a controlled setting with a “spoofer.” A similar experiment also proved successful at Carnegie Mellon University, according to Space.com: “The overall landscape of GPS vulnerabilities is startling, and our experiments demonstrate a significantly larger attack surface than previously thought,” a research paper about the Carnegie Mellon study concluded. “Until GPS is secured, life and safety-critical applications that depend upon it are likely vulnerable to attack.”

Humphreys told Truthout at BuzzFlash that he is hopeful that the US government is now paying attention to the security hole in the current GPS system for civilian drones:

We can safely say that since our experiment this past summer they have snapped to attention and are taking this seriously. The FAA has a team of 25 working on it. They are allowing three years to work on this problem. The Department of Homeland Security is moving slowly forward. They get credit for allowing our tests to move forward. They get credit for releasing money for research.

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