Rogue drone attacks could be new cybersecurity threat

Thursday - 7/14/2011, 6:38pm EDT

John Villasenor, electrical engineering professor, UCLA

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By Jack Moore
Web Writer
Federal News Radio

The threat of cyber attacks may no longer be confined to the world of computer systems and networks.

In a Brookings Institution report, John Villasenor, an electrical engineering professor at UCLA, found that cyber attacks could spill over into the physical realm through the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones.

"A majority of the attention on cybersecurity and cyber attacks is on basically bits and bytes - the information that's moving across all of the networks inside these devices," he said in an interview with Federal News Radio. "But there's sort of yet another thing that we can add to our list of things to worry about, which is that with all these advances in information technology and networking technology...it's now possible to build very advanced platforms, which combine very advanced computing capabilities with actual, physical machines that do things."

These combinations are known as cyber-physical platforms. Such platforms are nothing new, and they are often helpful, such as robotic surgery, Villasenor said. But drones, which are basically flying, weaponized computers, in the wrong hands could do "quite a lot of damage," he added.

What makes cyber-physical threats stand out in an age of near-ubiquitous cyber attacks is how rapidly the technology has evolved.

"These technology changes have sort of happened while most of us kind of had our heads turned," he said. "They've happened really fast."

The topic of rogue drone attacks first drew attention about seven or eight years ago, Villasenor said, amid a series of papers and congressional testimony. The concern then was focused on large cruise missile-sized drones.

"But the same advances that have made it possible to put these smartphones in our pockets that have all this incredible video functionality and computing capability, have also made it possible now to build drones [that] can easily fit in the palm of your hand, and they still have very advanced computing capabilities and can fly all over the place."

Villasenor acknowledged the threat seems farfetched to some and terrifying to others, but he said he remains optimistic that the proper policies can help "tilt the odds" toward being more secure.

"My hope is that by creating dialogue in the wider policy and government community, that we can, in fact, get ahead of this and put into place some of the steps we can do to lower the chances that something like this would be used by the wrong people," he said.