Secret Service Declares War on Drones

The history of warfare is the constant struggle between offensive and defensive technology, measures and countermeasures.  The heavily armored knight reigned supreme on the battlefield until the invention of the longbow and the pike.  Naval strength was measured solely in terms of the number of “big gun” ships a country possessed until the invention of the torpedo and the aircraft.  This race never stops.  The torpedo, in turn, spawned the depth charge and sonar, while the aircraft led to radar and anti-aircraft weapons, which, in turn, led to chaff and jamming.

This never-ending battle is now going to be waged over the streets of Washington, D.C. Word comes now  that the Secret Service, alarmed by the crash of a UAS on the lawn of the White House by a drunken intelligence officer, is going to be conducting live tests to determine how to disable and bring down drones in flight.  The tests will be conducted between 1 a.m. and 4 a.m. over the next several weeks over unspecified parts of Washington.  While the details of the plan are classified, the Secret Service is looking into signal jamming and spoofing technology to interfere with the UAS’s flight control systems.  In addition, the testing will also be used to determine whether the Secret Service’s jamming devices will also interfere with nearby cell phones, blue tooth technology, wireless networks, or devices that require a GPS signal.

This proposal highlights a major quandary for policymakers.  The proliferation of small UAS has created a security risk.  A relatively benign way of dealing with the threat is for law enforcement to take advantage of security flaws in the UAS’s GPS and control systems.  These vulnerabilities, however, are the very same ones that have led to criticism of the small UAS NPRM’s abandonment of any airworthiness certification standards for communication encryption and security.  People for years have been concerned that these same security flaws could be used by mischief makers or terrorists to “hijack” a drone in flight and crash it into people.

So, in order to protect us from criminals who want to hijack a drone, manufacturers need to make the data connections secure.  This, however, interferes with the Secret Service’s ability to use “non-lethal” means to stop a UAS in flight.  The Secret Service will then have to turn to figuring out ways around these protections such as signal decryption, broad spectrum jamming, or simply using a projectile to shoot it down.

This last method appears to be the favored approach by policymakers in China.  Last December, a small UAS involved in mapping for a real estate concern inadvertently flew into restricted airspace, prompting the mobilization of rapid-response forces and aircraft from 10 different People’s Liberation Army regiments and the activation of nearby surface-to-air missiles.  The Chinese ultimately used an armed helicopter to shoot down the UAS.

So, if you are out late in Washington, D.C. over the next few weeks and you see a drone flying overhead, or your cell phone starts acting strangely, or your car’s navigation system starts telling you that you are in Tuba City, Arizona, don’t worry.  You are just experiencing a side effect of the never-ending struggle between offense and defense.

(Originally posted March 11, 2015)

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