Criminals and Terrorists Can Fly Drones Too

Remote-controlled aircraft and robot technology can be used for bad just as easily as for good

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U.S. Department of Justice / REUTERS

A scale model of a U.S. Navy F-86 Sabre fighter plane, similar to a device constructed by Massachusetts resident Rezwan Ferdaus, 26, who was accused of plotting attacks on the U.S. Pentagon and Capitol by using a remote-controlled aircraft filled with plastic explosives. The pictured aircraft, from a photo released by the U.S. Justice Department, is not the device constructed by the defendant.

Americans know their government uses unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, on military and intelligence missions from surveillance to assassination. But drones are no longer the sole domain of the military, and just as with many new technologies, they can easily fall into the wrong hands.

(MORE: Read TIME’s cover story “The Rise of the Drones,” by Lev Grossman)

Robotic machines — including drones, which are basically robots that fly — are already policing international borders, exploring deep-sea shipwrecks, repairing undersea cables and vacuuming living rooms. Robots fly, roll, swim and walk. Some carry guns and bombs. Others have superhuman strength, endurance and sensory perception. A future in which they commit crimes may yet seem like the realm of science fiction, but it is closer than you think. Criminal organizations are early adopters of technology, and some have already used UAVs and other forms of robotics to violate the law while reducing their risk of arrest and apprehension.

In Latin America, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) has been collaborating with narcocartels to create remote-controlled drug-smuggling submarines capable of transporting 1,800 kilos of cocaine more than 1,000 miles (1,600 km) without refueling. In 2011, an al-Qaeda affiliate named Rezwan Ferdaus planned to launch an attack on the Pentagon and Capitol buildings using a remote-controlled drone aircraft laden with explosives until the FBI intercepted the plot. And just last year, criminals piloted a $600 remote-controlled quadcopter over a Brazilian prison fence to deliver cell phones to the incarcerated, as was also done in a 2009 attempt involving a drone to deliver drugs to prisoners in the U.K. A 50-ft. (15 m) electric fence may keep criminals in, but won’t keep a UAV drone out.

(MORE: Is Washington Overreacting to Zero Dark Thirty?)

Flying robots open up new opportunities for crime. Camera-equipped drones can and will be used for everything from the theft of industrial secrets to voyeurism by creepy neighborhood Peeping Toms. Some parents might use drones to follow their kids to school to ensure their safe arrival, but others will exploit the technology to stalk ex-husbands and ex-wives. Worse yet, hobbyists have been attaching guns to quadcopters for at least five years. What tragic damage might they unleash if so inclined?

Simply stated, our current security and defense mechanisms were meant to protect us from offending human criminals, not robotic ones. So how might we deal with this emerging treat? Some might suggest the answer lies in new laws, such as criminalizing possession of a UAV or possession of a drone with intent to harm. Personally, I do not believe that would resolve the problem. In a world where all things connected to the Internet are hackable, so too are drones. Thus criminals and terrorists needn’t even own or buy a drone; they can merely hack and hijack somebody else’s.

We’ve seen this before: in 2009, when Iraqi Shi‘ite militants used a $26 piece of Russian software intended to steal satellite television to instead download real-time video feeds from American surveillance drones as they flew over Iraq. In effect, the insurgents turned U.S. drones into their own tool and benefited from the live video to both monitor and evade U.S. operations.  More recently, in 2011, a computer virus infected the cockpits of America’s Predator and Reaper drones, logging pilots’ every keystroke as they remotely flew missions over Afghanistan and other war zones.

The point here is not to stifle innovation or ban commercial UAV technology, which will surely bring us great convenience, protect us and even deliver medicine to remote areas in times of crisis. Drones are nothing more than a new technology, as was fire, the original technology. Fire can warm us and cook our food, but it can also be used to burn down a village. The tool itself is thus not the problem; it is its use and application. Instead of banning fire — or, in this case, drones — we should proactively anticipate its misuse and defend against its dangers to preserve the forthcoming benefits.

(MORE: “Why We Shouldn’t Fear Personal Drones,” by Chris Anderson)

As of today, we do not have the systems in place to detect and intercept a planned drone attack or prevent fringe elements from using robots in the course of their criminal activities. Rather than waiting for significant harm to befall our society, we should begin planning our legal, public-policy and tactical responses now, before it is too late.