Fears of IS’ use of weaponized drones

‘Drone­jack­ing’ may be next big cy­ber threat

Kuwait Times - - FRONT PAGE -

The Mo­sul bat­tle in Iraq has seen the Is­lamic State group in­creas­ingly re­sort to weaponized drones, which West­ern gov­ern­ments fear could lead to a new type of at­tack at home. France is­sued an in­ter­nal note to its se­cu­rity forces last week warn­ing that “this threat is to be taken into ac­count na­tion­wide” and or­der­ing any drone be treated as a “sus­pi­cious pack­age”. The first record of a deadly IS drone at­tack was in Oc­to­ber when two Iraqi Kur­dish fighters were killed and two French spe­cial forces sol­diers wounded.

The de­vice had been booby-trapped and did its dam­age on the ground when forces ap­proached it af­ter it landed. “The use of drones by ter­ror­ist and in­sur­gent forces is a grow­ing is­sue of in­ter­na­tional con­cern,” James Be­van, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Con­flict Ar­ma­ment Re­search NGO, wrote in a re­cent re­port. West­ern coun­tries have seen an un­prece­dented wave of at­tacks per­pe­trated or in­spired by IS and the new air­borne threat is giv­ing chills to se­cu­rity agen­cies.

“It’s a threat we’re look­ing into, es­pe­cially with all those who will re­turn from Iraq and Syria with bags of bat­tle ex­pe­ri­ence,” a French gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial told AFP. Some coun­tries, es­pe­cially those with large num­bers of na­tion­als among IS’ for­eign fighter con­tin­gent such as France or Bel­gium, worry that at­tacks on home soil will spike af­ter the col­lapse of the ji­hadists’ “caliphate”. Drones are ubiq­ui­tous on the front­lines of the bat­tle for IS bas­tion Mo­sul, which Iraqi forces launched on Oct 17.

The mil­i­tants have used them for some time for re­con­nais­sance mis­sions, just like gov­ern­ment forces have, but they have more re­cently tried to mod­ify them. In mid-Novem­ber an AFP team on Mo­sul’s south­ern front saw a small com­mer­cial drone, of the kind that will fly off the shelves in the run-up to Christ­mas, drop a grenade on a fed­eral po­lice po­si­tion.

Forces bat­tling their way to the out­skirts of Mo­sul have re­ported sev­eral sim­i­lar in­ci­dents. “They are also us­ing drones in this area,” Abu Mo­hammed Al-Atabi, a com­man­der with the Hashed al-Shaabi paramil­i­taries de­ployed south­west of Mo­sul told AFP last week.

A high-rank­ing army of­fi­cer posted on the south­ern front said his sol­diers were at­tacked by a mod­i­fied Phan­tom 4, a ba­sic cam­era-fit­ted “quad­copter” that can be pur­chased on­line for less than $1,000.

Ex­perts ar­gue that, com­pared to the sui­cide car and truck bombs IS some­times fills with sev­eral tonnes of ex­plo­sives, drones rep­re­sent a mi­nor threat. Their au­ton­omy is lim­ited and they can­not carry heavy pay­loads. Yet there is ev­i­dence that IS weapons ex­perts have been busy try­ing to per­fect their drones. Con­flict Ar­ma­ment Re­search in Fe­bru­ary saw a work­shop aban­doned by IS af­ter Iraqi forces re­took the city of Ra­madi.

The group doc­u­mented an un­manned aerial ve­hi­cle which IS had de­signed it­self, us­ing poly­styrene foam and model air­craft com­po­nents, and fit­ted with a cam­era. It said ev­i­dence in the work­shop also showed at­tempts to build much larger drones from scratch. “No ter­ror­ist en­tity to date has demon­strated UAS (un­manned air­craft sys­tems) ca­pa­bil­ity that would be con­sid­ered highly ca­pa­ble, highly lethal and highly se­cure,” Don Rassler, from the Com­bat­ing Ter­ror­ism Cen­ter, said in an Oc­to­ber re­port.

He warned that could soon change, how­ever. “Fu­ture off-the-shelf drones will be able to carry heav­ier pay­loads, fly and loi­ter longer, ven­ture far­ther from their con­troller and be able to do so via more se­cure com­mu­ni­ca­tions links,” he said. The dis­as­ter sce­nario is one in which IS uses drones to dis­sem­i­nate the kind of chem­i­cals it has so far used with lim­ited suc­cess on rock­ets. “Al­though tech­ni­cally much more dif­fi­cult to achieve, aerosol or spray­ing de­vices can also be at­tached to a UAS to dis­trib­ute chem­i­cal and bi­o­log­i­cal agents,” Rassler said.

To counter this new threat, some West­ern coun­tries have started de­vel­op­ing de­fense sys­tems ca­pa­ble of spot­ting, track­ing and de­stroy­ing drones. The US mil­i­tary is us­ing ki­netic anti-drone sys­tems that phys­i­cally take on the de­vices, while oth­ers fa­vor hack­ing or scram­bling. An­other more unusual tech­nique de­vel­oped in France uses ea­gles that are trained - by be­ing fed meat on drones - to spot the air­craft and take them down. “They are ca­pa­ble of de­tect­ing them from thou­sands of me­tres away and neu­tral­iz­ing them,” French air force gen­eral Jean-Christophe Zim­mer­mann said.

Separately, a big rise in drone use is likely to lead to a new wave of “drone­jack­ings” by cy­ber­crim­i­nals, se­cu­rity ex­perts warned yes­ter­day. A re­port by Intel’s McAfee Labs said hack­ers are ex­pected to start tar­get­ing drones used for de­liv­er­ies, law en­force­ment or cam­era crews, in ad­di­tion to hob­by­ists. “Drones are well on the way to be­com­ing a ma­jor tool for ship­pers, law en­force­ment agen­cies, pho­tog­ra­phers, farm­ers, the news me­dia, and more,” said Intel Se­cu­rity’s Bruce Snell, in the com­pany’s an­nual threat re­port.

Snell said the con­cept of drone­jack­ing was demon­strated at a se­cu­rity con­fer­ence last year, where re­searchers showed how some­one could eas­ily take con­trol of a toy drone. “Al­though tak­ing over a kid’s drone may seem amus­ing and not that big of an is­sue, once we look at the in­crease in drone us­age po­ten­tial prob­lems starts to arise,” he said. The re­port noted that many con­sumer drones lack ad­e­quate se­cu­rity, which makes it easy for an out­side hacker to take con­trol.

Com­pa­nies like Ama­zon and UPS are ex­pected to use drones for pack­age de­liv­er­ies - be­com­ing po­ten­tial tar­gets for crim­i­nals, the re­port said. “Some­one look­ing to ‘drone­jack’ de­liv­er­ies could find a lo­ca­tion with reg­u­lar drone traf­fic and wait for the tar­gets to ap­pear,” the re­port said. “Once a pack­age de­liv­ery drone is over­head, the drone could be sent to the ground, al­low­ing the crim­i­nal to steal the pack­age.”

The re­searchers said crim­i­nals may also look to steal ex­pen­sive pho­to­graphic equip­ment car­ried by drones, to knock out sur­veil­lance cam­eras used by law en­force­ment. Intel said it ex­pects to see drone­jack­ing “tool­kits” traded on “dark web” mar­ket­places in 2017. “Once these tool­kits start mak­ing the rounds, it is just a mat­ter of time be­fore we see sto­ries of hi­jacked drones show­ing up in the evening news,” the re­port said. Other pre­dic­tions in the re­port in­cluded a de­crease in so-called “ran­somware” at­tacks as de­fenses im­prove, but a rise in mo­bile at­tacks that en­able cy­ber thieves to steal bank ac­count or credit card in­for­ma­tion. The re­port also noted that cy­ber­crim­i­nals will be­gin us­ing more so­phis­ti­cated ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence or “ma­chine learn­ing” tech­niques and em­ploy fake on­line ads. — Agen­cies

MO­SUL: Iraqi spe­cial forces, Lt Col Ali Hus­sein holds a de­stroyed drone used by Is­lamic State mil­i­tants, which was shot down by his brigade on the front­line Bakr neigh­bor­hood on Nov 25, 2016. — AP

Dawn breaks af­ter one of Eng­land’s cold­est nights of the au­tumn so far this year at Holme Pier­re­pont, Not­ting­hamshire, yes­ter­day. — AP

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