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‘Dronejacking’ may be next big cyber threat; Fears of IS’ use of weaponized drones

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
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

BAGHDAD/WASHINGTON: 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

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