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Friday, 05 April 2019 08:29

Drone data a big aid in fighting crime: forensics expert

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Lee Reiber: "There are many regulations that are to be followed by both commercial and recreational pilots, but like anything else, they are loosely followed." Lee Reiber: "There are many regulations that are to be followed by both commercial and recreational pilots, but like anything else, they are loosely followed." Supplied

Law enforcement authorities can use data from drones to solve crimes in a number of ways, from using device information stored in the cloud, tracking flight logs, and finding a rogue drone’s home base, the chief operating officer of Oxygen Forensics, a digital forensics software company, says.

Lee Reiber, who has spent 15 years conducting digital forensic investigations, said the data that could be used was not limited to geo-positional data. "Not only positional, but also the direction of travel, rotor speeds, altitude, and many more types of telemetry," he said in response to queries from iTWire.

"Further, images and videos can also be used, as well as user data like email addresses, IP addresses, credit card numbers, and serial numbers of devices."

He said that what had started out as hobbyist enthusiasm - "and continues to create hysterical local stories of drones getting shot out of the sky" - had begun to have many practical uses and applications.

"Private enterprise use of drones continues to expand, including using the devices for package delivery, sending vaccines to remote areas, and inspect factories," Reiber said.

"Public and recreational use of drones is also growing rapidly. In 2018, the US Federal Aviation Administration reported that more than a million drone users registered under its unmanned aerial systems registration portal."

He added that as public and recreational drone popularity increased, the devices presented a critical challenge for law enforcement, as witnessed in the Gatwick Airport incident late last year in the UK.

The incident Reiber referred to occurred in December last year. Between 19 and 21 December, Gatwick, the UK's second busiest airport, was forced to cancel hundreds of flights after reports of drone sightings close to the runway surfaced. There were major disruptions which affected about 140,000 passengers and 1000 flights, according to Wikipedia.

Reiber said drones could pose a serious risk to public safety, privacy, and security. "Beyond the threat of flying into protected airspace, the devices can also be used to commit crimes like transporting drugs, carrying explosives and finding targets to burglarise," he said.

When iTWire pointed him to the system developed by Israel-based ParaZero — a system known as SafeAir which is attached to the top of the drone and uses various parameters to judge what should be done while the drone is in flight, bringing it safely to earth iof the need arose — he said this was no guarantee of safety.

"The drone’s firmware can be hacked in as little as 30 seconds with flashed firmware," said Reiber. "This would make the drone invisible to any type of countermeasures (radio jamming, command, and control, etc).

"Also, with the plethora of available aftermarket parts and even families of UAS (unmanned aircraft systems), the support is almost impossible to account for each frequency. That brings in the possibility of a UICC (universal integrated circuit card), [and] a UAS would be capable of operating on a cellular signal with a range only limited by the battery duration."

Asked whether a ban on use of drones in some industries was the solution, Reiber said there would be no ban on commercial drone usage. "The oversight should really be on the purchasing of both recreational as well as commercial drones," he said. "There currently is a requirement by the FAA to license each drone and register.

"But, much like the requirement to license a firearm in each US state, this can often not be followed. Many countries, like India, ban all drones except for law enforcement usage. This was really done before recreational drones were easily available. Many other countries have very stringent laws on flying UAS, like the UK.

"However, as you know this has not deterred many, with instances occurring every day. There are many regulations that are to be followed by both commercial and recreational pilots, but like anything else, they are loosely followed. Then, if caught, and merely flying too high, law enforcement is more apt to look the other way."

Reiber said there were both pros and cons to the use of drones. On the positive side, he listed law enforcement usage for safety (EOD, SWAT, Patrol, etc), "where a drone can make sure the scene is safe before sending in human assets".

They could also be used for crowd or riot control. "[They] can be used to disperse crowds with teargas, water, or other items. Further, they can be used to keep watch over areas which human patrols are unable to access, or even in the event of large gatherings."

The negatives were too many to list, he said. "Just look at the contra of all the positives and add stalking, drug delivery, dispersion of biohazard material, IED, etc."

Oxygen Forensics provides law enforcement and government with quicker access to more critical information from drone data.

"In cases like drug trafficking or potential explosives, quickly finding a perpetrator operating the drone or the drone’s last location can be critical to keeping the public safe," said Reiber, a former law enforcement officer himself. "Law enforcement officers need to have the capability to track data quickly and efficiently."

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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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