Researchers: How to Detect Drones That Spy

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Researchers have pioneered a technique to detect whether a drone camera is illicitly capturing video.

Amid increasing concerns about the proliferation of drone use for personal and business applications and how it is impinging on privacy and safety, researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) and Weizmann Institute of Science have figured out how to tell 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 Ben Nassi, a Ph.D. student in the BGU department of software and information systems engineering and a researcher at the BGU Cyber Security Research Center (CSRC). "While it has been possible to detect a drone, now someone can also tell if it is recording a video of your location or [doing] something else."

By placing smart film on a window and entering a few software commands on a laptop to access the encrypted video (via the camera’s “first-person view” (FPV) channel) that the drone operator sees, researchers were able to detect whether a DJI Mavic drone was capturing images of the location. In a second outdoor test, they 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."

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

"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."

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