Lawmakers Consider the Security and Civil Liberty Implications of Domestic Drones

By Matthew Harwood

Lawmakers Thursday debated the costs and benefits of integrating unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), otherwise known as drones, into the national airspace, particularly whether terrorist groups or other adversaries could use the pilotless aircraft to carry out attacks and whether UAVs threaten American civil liberties.

Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX), chairman of the Subcommittee on Oversight, Investigations, and Management, called drones a “game changer” from the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq to the borders of the United States. McCaul noted that Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which owns 10 drones, have conducted drone missions in support of the Border Patrol, Texas Rangers, US Forest Service, FBI, and others.   

Currently, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has granted 200 active certificates of authorization to fly drones domestically, primarily to law enforcement agencies and academic institutions. In February, President Obama signed a law which required the FAA to rapidly expand the ability of federal, state, and local public agencies to use drones to fulfill their mission.

Lawmakers worry that drones could be used to harm homeland security rather than bolster it. Last week Rezwan Ferdaus pled guilty in a 2011 plot to hit the Pentagon and the Capitol with explosive-laden remote control planes. Late last month, a research team from the University of Texas at Austin showed the Department of Homeland Security that it could hack and hijack an $80,000 UAV commonly used by law enforcement agencies.

During the hearing, Professor Todd Humphreys of the University of Texas at Austin’s Radionavigation Laboratory, who led that team, explained to lawmakers how he and his students hacked into a UAV by spoofing the civil GPS system the drone uses to navigate.

Humphreys told lawmakers that he was not terribly worried about hackers taking control of drones in the near term because it takes tremendous expertise to build a GPS spoofer like the one he and his students built, even though the hardware costs were only between $1,000 and $2,000.  Nevertheless, his concerns rise the more and more drones enter the airspace over the next few years and technology evolves.


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