Coddington, Hicks & Danforth

New technique detects drone spying

Most aerial drones are used for legitimate purposes: landscape photography, acrobatics or just the simple thrill of flying. However, people occasionally use them for more nefarious things, like spying on their neighbors. As camera power increases, surveillance will become an increasing concern in the general public. To combat this, a team of researchers in Israel recently developed a technique that can tell with certainty whether a drone is spying on a given location.

Background: How Drones Communicate

To understand how the researchers detect spying, you first have to know something about how drones communicate. Drones send and receive wireless signals through radio waves. Cheaper drones have a range of several hundred feet, but more expensive ones can use cell phone towers for greatly increased range.

The operator uses a remote control or smartphone app to send wireless flight instructions, and if the drone has an on-board camera, it sends back a wireless radio stream of still images, sounds or video. This stream is encrypted, which means that only the operator can decode it. Any third party that intercepts the stream mid-flight will only read scrambled nonsense.

The Cutting Edge Of Counter-Surveillance

At least, that's the theory. Researchers at Ben Gurion University have exploited an encryption feature that allows them to detect patterns in the drone's video stream even without decrypting them.

In one example, they pointed a drone's camera at a house and then used a special covering to vary the opacity of a window in a specific pattern. They were able to use their software to intercept and analyze the drone's encrypted video stream. While they couldn't unscramble the actual video, they could tell that it included the pattern they'd flashed in the window. They established beyond any doubt that the drone was looking at the house.

Future Implications

While effective, the researchers' technique probably won't be coming to regular people's homes any time soon. If something like it is ever commercially available, however, it will have huge implications for drone privacy law, since homeowners could conceivably prove in court that a particular drone was spying on them.

Until that time, people will have to rely on more old-fashioned techniques. If a drone is hovering near your property, try to find the operator, who should be nearby. If you can't, take photos of your own and alert the authorities. Drone surveillance of private property is illegal in California. You have every right to demand that other people respect that privacy.

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