Drone Concerns Abate for Privacy, Rise for Safety

The FAA provides guidelines for proper drone usage.

February 27, 2018      

Drone concerns around privacy have been a topic of public debate in Europe as well as in North America. There are numerous legitimate uses for drones, including in agriculture, construction, and infrastructure inspection. However, countermeasures have arisen to address this, even as several recent near-misses between unmanned aerial vehicles and aircraft have led to new calls for regulation.

Initial drone concerns centered around activities such as UAVs recording audio and video of people in sensitive areas. Researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, have created a tool that warns people when they are being recorded.

The new technique detects when a drone camera illicitly capturing video is active. In a paper, “Game of Drones — Detecting Captured Target From an Encrypted Video Stream,” the researchers demonstrated techniques for detecting if a targeted subject or house is being recorded by a drone camera.

“The beauty of this research is that someone using only a laptop and an object that flickers can detect if someone is using a drone to spy on them,” said researcher Ben Nassi. “While it has been possible to detect a drone, now someone can also tell if it is recording a video of your location or something else.”

Two privacy responses to drone concerns

Nassi’s team produced two demonstrations. In the first demo, they showed how a privacy invasion against a house can be detected. The team used smart film placed on a window and entered a few software commands on a laptop to access the encrypted video the drone operator sees, called the FPV channel.

This enabled the researchers to demonstrate how they detect that a neighbor is using a DJI Mavic drone to capture images of his own home and then illicitly stream video of his neighbor’s house.

In a second outdoor test, the researchers demonstrated how an LED strip attached to a person wearing a white shirt can be used to detect targeted drone activity. When researchers flickered the LED lights on the cyber-shirt, it caused the FPV channel to send an “SOS” by modulating changes in data sent by the flickering lights.

“This research shatters the commonly held belief that using encryption to secure the FPV channel prevents someone from knowing they are being tracked,” Nassi said. “The secret behind our method is to force controlled physical changes to the captured target that influence the bit rate [data] transmitted on the FPV channel.”

This method can be used on any laptop that runs Linux OS and does not require any sophisticated hacking or cryptographic breaking skills.

“Our findings may help thwart privacy invasion attacks that are becoming more common with increasing drone use,” Nassi said. “This could have significant impact for the military and for consumers because a victim can now legally prove that a neighbor was invading their privacy.”

It’s also likely that drone concerns around privacy will lead to legislation.

Close calls lead to push for more regulation

Several recent incidents have raised drone concerns among commercial aviation authorities. National security authorities have warned that terrorists could use UAVs. Disputes can also lead to drones being shot down.

Both the U.S. and Europe were already considering more rules for consumer and commercial drone use. If they don’t move quickly enough, pressure will mount for state and local restrictions.

In December, the Trump administration reinstated the requirement for recreational drone users to register with the Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA is also considering drone identification requirements, even as associations, drone vendors, and universities promote self-regulation by the UAV user community.

The posting online of drone footage allegedly taken from above a jetliner coming for a landing in Las Vegas led to a call by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) for prosecution. However, relatively few people have been charged with flying UAVs without a license, even if drone registrations are increasing.

People have been flying drones around firefighting helicopters, airports, and public parks worldwide, with varying degrees of legality and safety. A helicopter trainee in South Carolina, pilots above London, and firefighters above a golf course in Australia all reported near collisions. Accidents happen, but more UAVs could increase the risk without safeguards such as geofencing.

At the same time, some regional authorities are looking to encourage research and development through favorable regulatory environments. Drone concerns must be addressed consistently for the industry to continue growing.