Is your DJI drone or UAV spying on your personal privacy? Hint: Yes. Yes it is!
Owning a drone is a lot of fun! But are you aware of the massive personal privacy and spying risks? They are insane and over the top!
Is your drone is spying on you? Oh heck yeah! And it’s ratting you out every chance it gets.
If you thought cell phones were bad, wait until you read this!
The Drone Digital Ecosystem - Personal Privacy Primer
Ok, let’s get down to business.
The tiny drone sitting in your hand is a modern wonder of computer and communication technology. Drones aka UAVs, have a complex unique digital ecosystem. This digital ecosystem makes it difficult for a pilot and their drone to remain private and anonymous.
The combination of your drone, controller, and cell phone is a forensics powerhouse . Chock full of resources wide open and free for the taking. The worst offenders in your flight kit are your mobile device, cell phone, or tablet. Especially those connected to data or WiFi.
Drones communicate within their electronic ecosystem wirelessly. This includes flight telemetry instructions, feedback, and monitoring. Photo, video, and audio transmissions and recordings. GPS location data for both the controller (Pilot) and the drone (aircraft). And a host of other data information between the pilot, aircraft, cell phone, and internet links.
Your UAV is no different than any other enabled IoT device. It is easy to hack, monitor, track, hijack, disable, and more.
Why Is Your Drone Spying On You And Invading Your Privacy?
Bad people do bad things. They use drones and UAVs for a wide variety of illegal activities. Their devices do horrible things and cause harm, chaos, harassment, and terror. Criminals use drones for robberies and burglaries as digital looks. Or to deliver drugs and other illegal payloads.
Drug cartels, Isis and Yakuza are using drones to deliver drugs. They use weaponized drones to take out rivals.
Terrorists use drones to deliver bombs and bioweapons. The drones attack both ground and air targets.
But it’s not only because of the bad people that your drone is now spying on you. Reckless users also create distress. For the most part, it’s unintentional or accidental. They become a nuisance without realizing they’re doing it. And sometimes their mistakes cause problems at major airports.
This is why your drone is spying on you and invading your personal privacy. Identifying drones, controllers, mobile devices, and pilots have become a national priority.
Abiding By UAV Rules And Regulations
Each country around the world has its own rules regulating drones and UAV aircraft. Regulations consider the weight of the drone and air space classifications. Most countries require drone owners to register and train as licensed pilots. Also, drones over a certain weight need to register with flight authorities.
The specific rules and regulations of each country vary and it’s best to do your own research. However, they share many similarities.
UAVs can fly to a maximum altitude of 400 feet (120 meters). Pilots are not allowed to fly within 3 miles (5 km) from the center of the nearest airport. It is forbidden to fly a drone within an aircraft’s flight path.
Flying over parks or public lands is illegal without special permits. National monuments, heritage sites, and wildlife refuges are no-fly zones. And night flying is okay, but only with approved anti-collision lighting equipment.
Please do your research to learn the rules and regulations where you live or will be flying.
Drone Detection And Identification
Drone and UAV detection and identification is one way that your drone is spying on you. To be more accurate, it is one way authorities and drone/UAV hunters use your drone to spy on you and expose your personal privacy.
According to Aerial Armor, drone detection is: “… the practice of detecting and tracking Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs or drones). Security teams and law enforcement agencies use drone detection systems to monitor their airspace and take appropriate actions against unwanted drones. Flight data and operator information can be retrieved and used to take legal action, when necessary.”
Commercial drone detection equipment can detect UAVs in 360 degrees as far away as 20 miles. It’s safe to assume that military equipment has a much greater range. Your drone is easy to detect on the ground as it is in flight. It only needs to be in communication with the flight controller.
Drone detection equipment uses either passive or active detection. Passive detectors “listen” for radio signals. Active detectors listen for radio signals and broadcast their own signals including radar. Detection equipment works well. However, in urban areas with tall buildings, detectors have a more difficult time. Signal beacons, sensors, and integration with cell towers are solving this problem. Rogue pilots can no longer hide in blind spots.
How Drone Detection And Identification Works
By monitoring Radio Frequency (RF) signals, hunters can identify the exact make and model of the drone. They can identify the controller, pilot, GPS location, altitude, and speed. Their systems work by spying and listening to drone frequencies and collecting broadcast data.
The data is compared against database systems to identify the equipment, along with the FAA registered owner. Detection systems cross-check manufacturer databases to identify registered warranty owners of unregistered UFDs (Unidentified Flying Drones).
Even more alarming, hunters can check cell providers to identify the cell phone owner.
The collected flight data is extensive. Drone GPS location, pilot location, pathing behavior (left, right, up, down, pitch, yaw), satellites, altitude, speed, acceleration and deceleration, takeoff and landing, and a copy of the video and audio feeds. And that’s just the start.
The Federal Aviation Authority’s database includes the pilot’s name, address, email, phone number, sale date, make and model, weight, and a serial number of the aircraft. Transport Canada and the European Union Aviation Safety Agency collect similar data.
Drone software uses web services like Google Maps for a variety of purposes. These include plotting waypoints, determining the direction of travel, and find-my-drone features. Pilot and UAV geolocation data is also recorded. Apps like Dronelink and DJI’s Go Fly record flights and patterns. And they can share the collected data and your personal privacy with authorities or the public.
New drones will soon come with mandatory Remote ID. The remote ID system will broadcast the UAV’s identification and location during flight. Any party can receive and view this real-time data.
What Privacy Data Is My DJI Drone Collecting From Me?
DJI is one of the most popular consumer drone brands. Some other manufacturers use the DJI technology and framework to make their drones. DJI devices record almost everything about the drone. Including controller, flight, battery, satellites, and video and photo use.
A more extensive list includes:
- drone GPS location
- pilot GPS location
- make and model
- drone’s unique ID number
- altitude and speed
- real-time geolocation data
- angle and distance from detector sensors in real time
- MAC address of drone’s wifi
- compass heading
- takeoff and landing analysis data
- crash data and crash data analysis
DJI also produces a software detection platform called AeroScope. Not only does AeroScope help detect UAVs, but it also connects to the DJI cloud where you store your flight data. AeroScope tracks drone data and signatures. DJI shares the data with law enforcement, government, and business when required.
Some drone apps store user account names and passwords on the drone, unencrypted. This gives your private account access to anyone who has access to the drone or is spying on its data.
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Drones And Cell Phone Data
Cell phones are a big part of the UAV experience. Controller hardware and software integrates to the pilot’s phone. The benefits are many. Your phone offers visual control, flight data, and a backup for videos and photos if the drone crashes.
But, cell phone privacy and spying is a major concern. Marketers, spammers, scammers, advertisers, social platforms, websites. They all reach deep into your private digital life. Introduce a drone to the mix and you get a whole host of new privacy issues. The drone, detectors and hunters, cloud services, and bad actors have access to:
- The phone’s UID
- The phone’s WiFi, IP, and MAC address
- Your cell phone server provider
- Your contacts and friends
- Your text messages
- Your apps and app data
- Access to your social media accounts and websites
- Access to your photos, videos, files, and messages
- Your interests, behaviors, shopping habits, medical and financial information, and more
- Your pathing behaviors (who, what, when, where)
That’s a lot of data in an already data-focused ecosystem. Please do not misunderstand. Your drone has the ability to collect and send this information. But that doesn’t mean it actually is.
The Chinese Drone Connection - Extreme Privacy Invasion
It’s time to talk about the elephant in the room. China.
Love it or hate it, China’s government is busy spying on the world.
The Chinese government collects data on everyone, every business, and everything it can. China uses data to control citizens in a social credit driven authoritarian state. Step out of line at risk of losing everything. Friends, family, money, jobs, access to stores and shops, you name it. But that’s a different story for a different article.
While private individuals own businesses in China, the state wields a great power and control over those businesses.
China makes most of the drones purchased around the world. DJI is one of the biggest and most popular consumer brands. And DJI is a Chinese company.
As we’ve already learned, the DJI drones collect massive amounts of information. The information is stored on your phone, drone, and DJI’s cloud service. In addition, DJI requires drone owners to register on the DJI site and create a user account to access many of the drone’s features.
DJI offers a global mapping service. The service details different air space categorizations and flight zones.
And it advises pilots where and when they can fly. DJI saves this data to their cloud along with your flight records.
It is likely that your drone is sharing all its data with the Chinese government. This gives the Chinese government unabated access to your 24/7/365 digital and online life. Let that sink in for a minute.
Tin hat? Maybe. But it is a possible privacy risk that doesn’t hurt to take into consideration.
Drone Hacking - Your Drone Is Making Spying On You Easy
By this point, it should be clear your drone is a privacy risk. It’s also a hacker risk. Consumer drones are not hardened for digital defense. Drone signals are easy to intercept or jam. As a wireless device, data communications are at risk.
Video and audio transmissions are vulnerable to man-in-the-middle attacks. A bad actor can intercept and record video and audio transmissions without your knowledge. Detection systems do this to collect forensic evidence against you.
Simple hacks can trick nearby cell phones into connecting to a drone and a cell phone tower. Like Stingray systems, there is potential to use drones to record private conversations. UAVs are less obvious than a van with a satellite dish parked across from your driveway.
A bad actor can hijack your drone. By matching your signature and over-powering your signal they can take control of your device. Who knows what purpose they might have in mind? As far as authorities care, it’s your UAV and you are the pilot.
Anti-drone systems use hijacking techniques to take control of drones violating restricted air space. For forensics and identification, they can land and retrieve your drone without damage.
Is The FAA Searching YouTube For Your Drone Videos?
Let’s pretend for a minute that your drone isn’t ratting you out. Do you know that the FAA is scrubbing YouTube in search of drone videos?
The FAA is using your drone footage on YouTube to spy on you.
They are looking for videos shot in restricted air spaces. Videos shot in a manner that violates flight rules and regulations. Clips filmed by unlicensed pilots. And videos published by pilots who do not have an FAA commercial pilot license (part 107).
The FAA regards YouTube as a commercial platform. To publish your vacation drone video, you must have a commercial pilot license. There are no exceptions and the fines are heavy. It does not matter if you receive ad revenue from YouTube. The FAA categorizes all streaming services and stock video sites as commercial venues.
You’re on a tourist visa and not a citizen? You still need an FAA-issued pilot license, and commercial license if you’ll be posting to YouTube.
More information is available at: https://uavcoach.com/drone-certification/
You should think twice before uploading your amazing Area 51 footage or that super-cool top-secret battleship. Heck, you shouldn’t have filmed it in the first place. Given all the ways your drone is spying on you, we’re surprised you’ve made it this far.
How Forensics Can Reveal Drone Pilot Identity And Privacy
Forensic investigators have access to powerful digital data and communications tools. Investigators work with drone detection hunters. An investigation begins with analysis of the detection data. The data includes RF signals, radar, and visual observation.
We covered the extensive data capture by the device, controller, and cell phone. This data is available to forensic detectives. Investigators examine the data and use it to identify pilots and violations. It serves as evidence in prosecution or legal action.
SD cards may also contain valuable information. Information might include metadata about the owner, owner’s computer, or other devices. The card might even contain sensitive files, videos, or audio clips. And this can be very useful to prosecutors.
Videos, photos, and audio usually have embedded metadata. Metadata can reveal geolocation, GPS locations, ownership, user information, flight data and more.
Smart batteries store information about flights and flight telemetry. They store data about the number of recharges. The number of battery uses. And flight durations. During an investigation, this information may prove useful to prosecution or legal action.
Sharp edges on the drone may have traces of the operator’s DNA. Drone rotor blades are sharp.
Yet more ways your drone is spilling the beans on you and throwing you under the bus.
Difficulties Faced By Drone / UAV Forensics and Investigations
To be fair, forensics and investigations are not always fun and games. Investigators have many disadvantages working against them.
Each drone manufacturer may use its own operating system or variations. Investigators need expert knowledge of these frameworks.
Flight data is not always stored in the same place or in a standardized manner. The simple act of looking for data might destroy or erase the data.
Coordinates, telemetry, and flight data files take up space. Operating systems rescue space by deleting older files.
And of course, data can be stored across many devices such as the phone, controller, and the drone. An investigator might need all the components to collect enough evidence.
So, while your drone is ratting you out it might also be saving your bacon. Here’s a thought. Don’t do bad stuff.
Weird News Stories Involving Drones and UAVs
The drone and UAV digital ecosystem is complex and vast. The nature of wireless communications makes it easy for drones to spy on owners. It also makes it easy for owners to spy on others. Controllers, drones, and phones provide massive amounts of data to anyone who wants to see it.
Your drone presents a severe privacy risk. But it sure is a lot of fun to fly.
Check out our other article on drones: Are Drones Spying On You?
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