drone technology

How hackable are first responders' quadcopters?

A cybersecurity researcher announced at the RSA Security Conference that he’s able to hack into and hijack a quadcopter drone of the sort used by police and fire departments across the country.

Speaking in San Francisco on March 3, Nils Rodday, who works at IBM but conducted the research while at the Netherlands' University of Twente, explained how he can hack into a drone and take full control of a quadcopter using only a laptop and a cheap radio chip connection via USB.

Rodday, who conducted a demonstration for Wired, is not allowed to reveal the manufacturer, as he signed a non-disclosure agreement in order to conduct his research on the drone.  But he said the drones are valued at $30,000 to $35,000 each and have a flying time of a little more than a half-hour.

There are two vulnerabilities when it comes to the drone system, Rodday argued. The first is the Wi-Fi connection between the drone’s telemetry module and a user’s tablet. The connection uses a weak wired-equivalent privacy encryption that allows any hacker within Wi-Fi range to break into the connection and kick the owner off the network.

The second is the connection between the telemetry module and the drone itself. The module and the drone use an Xbee chip to communicate. Typically there is encryption built into Xbee chips, but the drone doesn’t implement the encryption, leaving it open to an attack where a hacker can take over command of the drone, intercepting any signals from the drone’s original operator and substituting the hacker's own.

Rodday has alerted the manufacturer to the vulnerabilities and said the company plans to fix the issue for the next version of its drone, but that still leaves the drones that are in the air today open to attack. Additionally, the drones aren’t connected to the Internet, so a patch can’t be readily downloaded -- and Rodday believes the fix would slow down the drone’s response time to commands.  He did, however, say in his RSA remarks that the company intends to fix the vulnerabilities.

This is not the first time someone has demonstrated a drone can be hacked and controlled, Wired noted: in 2013, a hacker named Samy Kamkar revealed that Parrot AR quadcopters relied on Wi-Fi connections the were not secured in any way.

About the Author

Derek Major is a former reporter for GCN.

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