Come Fly with Me: Securing the Drone

Drones, they’re taking over! Well, not quite, but the topic of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) filling our skies has become one of much debate over the last couple of years, with their use rapidly expanding from origins in the military to become part of everyday life. Big name brands such as Amazon have gone public with their plans to explore drone-based technologies in its attempts to make the delivery of parcels by small drones a reality, whilst any aircraft hobbyist can pick a basic commercial one up for just a couple of hundred pounds online.

There’s no denying that the potential that these devices have to offer is pretty impressive. Aside from the delivery of your weekly shopping or the mere enjoyment of flying one around your garden, they have been and are used to conduct dull, dirty or dangerous work that companies do not want to invest an employee to complete (risk assessment and maintenance of infrastructure such as inspections of roofs and bridges, for example); they provide reconnaissance for search and rescue missions; report on traffic patterns or news stories; survey wildlife; patrol pipelines, the list goes on. 

However, as is often the case in today’s world, technology has the potential to advance quicker than safety means, which exposes new risks, something that experts have been quick to point out when it comes to drones. As a result, the Cloud Security Alliance (CSA), alongside not-for-profit initiative Securing Smart Cities, has released the Establishing a Safe and Secure Municipal Drone Program report. Co-authored by the CSA Internet of Things (IoT) Working Group, the document provides guidance for the safe and secure creation and operation of a municipal drone program by analyzing the drone’s role and impact on future metropolitan areas along with detailing the impact they could have on aspects such as national security, addressing the required measures needed to protect, monitor, respond to and recover from cybersecurity threats.

“Whether you are a fan of them or not, it is becoming increasingly evident that drones will in fact play an important and even critical role in the smart city environment,” said Brian Russell, co-author of the report, Chair of CSA’s IoT Working Group. “Cities around the country are actively working to implement large-scale drone programs to support various functions ranging from medical, transportation and agricultural to emergency management and infrastructure protection. It is important that these drone systems be safe, stable, resilient and sustainable.”

From hackers gaining control of an aircraft to cause a crash or steal data, to privacy concerns of the public, to insurance liability troubles and even war/terror risks – all are issues that will arise as drones become common. A big part of the problem is that the airspace in which drones operate is, in the main, unregulated, with global guidelines regarding the use of UAS very much in their infancy. What’s more, there is a real need for drone manufacturers to improve security by integrating methodical security practices into their development and manufacturing efforts, something that has been lacking thus far.

Other drone system challenges cited in the report are: 
•    There are multiple points of integration within a city-wide drone system that can be used as attack vectors, including cloud-based software services
•    New, as yet unproven, algorithms will be used to support automated operations and cooperation between drones
•    Drones have and will continue to proliferate at an accelerated pace. This introduces new strains on municipal governments that will be required to operate in the same airspace as consumer drones
•    Drones will eventually be authorized for widespread Beyond Line of Sight (BLOS), operations and security engineers are expected to plan now to protect against future threats of integrating drone systems into the national airspace
•    Drones pilots can operate with a level of anonymity. It can be difficult to locate the operator as well as to identify the drone itself through visual cues.

To help overcome these, Establishing a Safe and Secure Municipal Drone Program outlines specific recommendations for ensuring UAS safety such as planning requirements, integrated system design, acquisition security, integration, testing and deployment.

“Drones in the sky, drones in the sea, drones on land. But are we ready? The mass adoption of drones by cities implies that thousands of programmable connected mobile devices will not only operate in the streets, but also above and below them. From a security perspective, this guarantees potential disasters, should one of several drone systems or the software used to control them become compromised or manipulated. We’re trying to raise these issues early to the public, which is why we’ve prepared these guidelines,” said Mohamad Amin Hasbini, Securing Smart Cities board member.

It’s reassuring to see organizations like CSA and initiatives such as Securing Smart Cities taking the lead on this subject and actively trying to get the message out there. I personally feel the future of UAS has the potential to be extremely bright and I’m always excited by new technology being used to better our lives, but it won’t come without its challenges. Software programming needs to be considered more seriously in the development phase of these things to make sure security is one of the key focuses, whilst significant responsibility falls on the shoulders of regulatory bodies and governments to set out realistic, yet strict guidelines, that all involved must work to and abide by.

So, like Sinatra sang, ‘come fly with me’ – but only when it’s secure.

What’s Hot on Infosecurity Magazine?