Drones have certainly received their fair share of press over the last few years… but not all of it has necessarily been popular. For those unfamiliar, a drone is essentially a consumer-grade version of the unmanned aerial craft that the military has been using for years. Many come with cameras built right in and, when controlled via the associated app on your smartphone, allow you to record both video and still photographs of some incredible sights that you wouldn’t otherwise have access to.
Unfortunately, this also has some harrowing implications in terms of our privacy.
In addition to causing trouble with the FAA (as aviation hobbyists disrupt flight paths and other legitimate aircraft with their drones), the technology has also been notable for the wide range of different reports of people using them to spy on their neighbors. Yes, drones have totally legitimate uses that have nothing to do with surveillance – but that doesn’t mean that you can’t become a victim yourself.
Luckily, if you want to make sure that you’re NOT being spied on, there are a few key things you can do. In fact, there is one clever radio trick that you can use immediately to find out whether or not you’re being spied on by a drone so that you can do something about it. The technique itself isn’t exactly simple right now, but as drones themselves have proven it’s only a matter of time before technology is exactly where you need it to be.
How to Spot Drone Spies
This technique was actually uncovered by a team of researchers at Ben Gurion University in Beer Sheva, Israel. First, the team generated a recognizable pattern on whatever subject in the area they thought might be spied on via a drone. If the team thought that a nearby drone might be trying to look into a home via a window, for example, they would generate that pattern on the window itself.
Next, the team used a device that allowed them to remotely intercept a drone’s radio signals. Then, they analyzed those signals to look for the unique pattern that was being projected. The radio signals give an excellent indication of what a drone is currently viewing WITHOUT breaking the (often) encrypted video stream.
If the pattern is present in the radio signals, you know exactly what the drone is looking at and can, therefore, take steps to protect your privacy.
As stated, this method is notable because it’s actually the first that allows people to tell what a drone’s camera is capturing without interfering with its onboard encryption in any way. Not only can you observe beyond the shadow of a doubt what someone is watching, but you can also approximate exactly where the drone is using the radio signals.
The setup itself is actually shockingly simple given its sophistication. The research team was able to both intercept the drone’s radio signals and figure out what it was looking at using little more than a parabolic antenna, a laptop computer and the right piece of software.
In a related test, the team also put blinking LED lights on a test subject’s shirt and then filmed it with a drone. Using the same technique, they weren’t just able to pull the blinking pattern out of the drone’s radio signals – they were able to clearly see that the blinking was binary code for SOS, as well. In theory, this “blinking light” technique could also be used to prove that a drone spied on a particular person or building at a later date.
Again, this isn’t something that just anyone can do right now, but thanks to the fact that the technique has been proven, it’s easy to imagine a situation where “anti-drone devices” are sold in big-box retail stores all across the country sooner rather than later. It’s also true that if this technique were widely adopted, people who like to spy on others via drones will likely try to find a way around it – and succeed. If anything, this just proves that the cat-and-mouse game between the spies and the people they’re spying on will continue into the next few years and beyond.