As an aside, something should be done about drones

I will pause to note how fantastical all of this sounds. Because even I can’t help but help but think that as I write. But it is not that implausible. Usually the people plotting hard core crimes, the people tinkering in their garages with arduino boards, the people trying to think of a good start-up, the people following futurists like Ray Kurzweil or Bill Joy and who had way too many pot-fueled college debates about how exactly machines will take over the world… usually these are not the same people. In this case they are. But whether it sounds implausible or not, this is what happened. [page 28]

I strongly recommend reading the letters from the kidnappers of Denise Huskins, as captured in these court documents hosted by Nicholas Weaver. [Update: you can also read the text of the letter on this horribly formatted news site.] The level of technical sophistication seems more appropriate for an over-the-top near-future sci-fi show than real life criminals looking to branch out. Hopefully an OCRd version will be online soon. Some extracts (page 26):

We had ip video surveillance, game cameras, a full electronic perimeter, you name it. Even a drone. A multi-thousand dollar custom drone, not a kid’s toy. We got good at using it on the island (if you can fly a drone in that wind, you can fly it anywhere), and there was some industrial/manufacturing activity in the eastern portion of the island at night that masked the drone’s sound. We flew it mostly at night and/or too high up to see easily from the ground. Maybe some residents still noticed it. Vallejo police, if you were wondering what those two red vinyl stripes were on top of Mr. [Quinn]’s Camry, they were to help the drone track him later in the operation. For what it’s worth, drones scare us too. They are not at all complicated or inaccessible for someone with decent technical skills, nor that expensive. Ours had a FLIR camera, built up from a consumer model. We used it to check things like heat signatures from above, and later to figure out how to hide from a police helicopter in a hypothetical manhunt.

Speaking of heat signatures, grow house, we know who you are. It’s actually the distinctive color of those new LED lights that give it away more than emissions. Work on those blackout shades. Though it seems like you’ve drawn down recently.

As a corroborative example that involves the drone at least indirectly: we were testing a new zoomable camera, gimbal, electronic image stabilization software and high quality video uplink one night, as well as some sensor/telemetry items that helped the drone hold position better. The drone was hovering about 20 feet outside the second story window of a student house near the end of Sundance (which we’d cased previously for the BMW there, we had even created a key for it and for another car usually parked out front, since it was close to our base of operations and we might need a different car in an emergency).

We had a good steady shot inside, even with zoom. And we saw that the upstairs resident was apparently dealing, because he was going through an envelope full of bills with some markings on it, and had some other paraphanelia. We were nearby and decided to come over and have a little bit of fun. We agreed that whoever could go up and snatch the drug money with people still in the house would get what’s in the envelope plus the other two people would have to match it. One of us was up for the challenge. He climbed in the window and zipped up the stairs while there were about 5 people chatting in the next room, got the envelope, and slipped back out the window. The guy was definitely dealing, seeing the markings up close, but business was slow perhaps because what had looked like a fat envelope was almost completely ones. So to that gentleman, we’re sorry we stole your drug money. And we’re more sorry toward the other people in the house you probably blamed for it.

One paragraph in particular stood out for me (page 43):

The drone is not weaponized. We ground-tested the flare system and that is all. The rails and equipment have been destroyed. It was goiing to be a last resort, and then only if someone could call dispatch and warn that the helicopter would be fired upon if it did not leave, with a link to a video showing what the drone could do. But we did not go through with it. The most we could do now is run it into something.

As an aside, something should be done about drones. Its going to take one radicalized geek plus a bunch of easily available systems and parts to do some real damage—physical and psychological. It’s an important innovation, I saw that Amazon just got its go-ahead to test outdoors. But these ought to be regulated. A year ago, before understanding the possibilities, I’d be the last person you ever heard say that. DJI stuck its neck out—yes in part to mitigate the White House Phantom flyover mess—and is getting hammered in the community for including flight limits in Inspire firmware updates. That should be standard at very least on that sort of high performance plug-and-play airframe, and it shouldn’t be left to the market to make it happen. Also, the whole “line of sight” rule is widely flouted and high powered radio equipment is readily available, FCC permit or no. We flew ours as far out as Crocket Hills regional park with video still pretty solid, and could have gone further if we hadn’t been worried about losing so much work and money. Nothing would keep us from flying it into AT&T stadium with a payload of God knows what. Unless someone is already secretly on top of this, maybe that’s the reason for the otherwise useless stadium TFRs (how would there ever be time to intercept?). It’s high time for some sort of DARPA challenge on disabling or shooting down small drones over populated areas. We already kicked around several ideas, I’m sure the real wizards can do better.

See also:

(from Schneier on Shooting down drones)

Overall, I continue to be surprised at the relative absence of drone-enabled crime.

Published by Paul Crowley

I'm Paul Crowley aka "ciphergoth", a cryptographer and programmer living in Mountain View, California. See also my Twitter feed, my webpages, my blogs on Dreamwidth and Livejournal, and my previous proper blog. Or mail me: paul at

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