Drug Cartels ‘Spoofing’ CBP Drones “Scary”

“….. current-generation unmanned systems are vulnerable to spoofing, hacking, and jamming. Researchers at the University of Texas have demonstrated that “a destructive GPS spoofing attack against a rotorcraft UAV is both technically and operationally feasible.” ~

Last week Shawn Moran, Vice President and spokesperson for the National Border Patrol Council addressed recent reports that Customs and Border Patrol drones are being hacked by Mexican drug cartels. Moran called the news “scary” while appearing on The Green Line online radio show.

Moran said, “Did you know that the drones being used are vulnerable to hacking? This was news to me. I have heard about some of the military drones having unencrypted communications channels and that those had been corrupted overseas, but it appears now that the drug cartels are easily hacking into drones being used for border security and they are spoofing the GPS coordinates, causing the UAVs to fly off course. That would make it very easy for a cartel to send a signal, get the drone out of the area, and then be able to move people, products, weapons – what have you – across.”

Moran called the findings in the study of UAVs conducted for DHS “scary,” and asked if “it really surprise you when it comes to CBP?” According to Moran that a module can be added to avoid the spoofing, but it is “both very heavy, very costly, and would make it less effective for all those times the UAV is down doing both low altitude and low speed support for agents. Oh wait, that’s never,” said Moran sarcastically. “It just flies over and calls out groups and then you never see it the rest of your shift.”

Listen to Moran here

“The bad guys on the border have lots of money and what they are putting money into is into spoofing and jamming GPS systems. We’re funding some advances so we can counter this,” Timothy Bennett, a science-and-technology program manager at the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees CBP, Defense One reporter Chris Tucker. Bennett claimed on Dec. 16 at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, that those bad guys aren’t ISIS, just traffickers, according to Tucker. “It’s more about trafficking drugs and people, ” Bennett told Tucker. “We know who’s over there. We can guess who’s doing it.”

So while the “bad guys have losts of money,” the drone grants that DHS is awarding to law enforcement agencies aren’t large to enough to buy the sorts of UAVs that can withstand penetration and spoofing attempts, according to Tucker’s report.

As Moran says, the drones do little for agents. However, according to Bennett, DHS is also funding new research and development to improve its border monitoring drones. The agency wants UAVs that can detect motion, then decide whether to alert a sensor operator, potentially cutting down on operator costs.

According to the DHS Inspector General’s report dated July 2015:

From FYs 2005 to 2013, CBP invested about $360 million on its Unmanned Aircraft System (i.e., “drone” program), which includes Predator B aircraft, related quipment such as ground control stations, as well as personnel, maintenance, and support. In 2014, we conducted an audit to determine the effectiveness and cost of the UAS program.

Unfortunately, despite its 8-year effort and significant investment of taxpayer dollars, CBP could not demonstrate how much the program has improved border security, largely because the program lacks performance measures and CBP was unaware of the true cost of the program.

Anticipated usage of the aircraft

When CBP established its UAS Concept of Operations in 2010, it expected that by FY 2013, it would be flying four 16-hour unmanned aircraft patrols every day of the year, or 23,296 total flight hours. However, the unmanned aircraft logged a combined total of 5,102 flight hours, or about 80 percent less than what OAM anticipated.

According to OAM, the aircraft did not fly more primarily because of budget constraints, which prevented OAM from obtaining the personnel, spare parts and other infrastructure for operations, and maintenance necessary for more flight hours. Other contributing factors included flight restrictions and weather-related cancellations.

Performance metrics

Although the UAS program is about 10 years old, OAM has never established formal metrics, which greatly impedes any effort to determine whether the program has been successful. OAM’s failure to establish relevant metrics is a barrier to fully understanding whether the taxpayers’ investment is a good one.

When OAM stood up the program, however, it did establish performance expectations in order to justify the cost of the program. These expectations are contained within the 2007 UAS Mission Need Statement, Concept of Operations, and Acquisition Plan. Government auditing standards permit us to compare such expectations against current performance. The performance expectations included:

Increased apprehensions: CBP anticipated that UAS support would increase apprehensions. For example, according to the UAS Mission Need Statement, “This investment expects to improve the efficiency, effectiveness, and safety of Border Patrol agents…by reducing response to false motion sensor alerts, increasing the number of apprehensions of illegal border crossings, and raising the agent’s situational awareness when moving towards and making arrests.”

Although it is not possible to determine whether the specific use of unmanned aircraft increased apprehensions of illegal border crossers, we can compare the United States Border Patrol’s total number of reported apprehensions to the number of apprehensions OAM attributed to the use of unmanned aircraft. For example, in the Tucson and Rio Grande Valley Sectors, where UAS operations were concentrated, the Border Patrol reported 275,392 apprehensions; yet, CBP attributed only 2,272 of those apprehensions, or less than 1 percent, to the UAS program.

Moreover, according to border patrol agents and intelligence personnel we interviewed in Arizona, the Border Patrol probably would have detected the same people using ground-based assets, without the assistance of unmanned aircraft.

Reducing border surveillance costs: According to the UAS Mission Need Statement, OAM expected unmanned aircraft to reduce border surveillance costs by 25 to 50 percent per mile. However, because OAM does not track this metric, it cannot demonstrate that the unmanned aircraft have reduced the cost of border surveillance.

Of course there is no estimate of the cost of the loss of privacy. “Already we’ve seen companies selling persistent surveillance, wide area surveillance solutions,” Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst from the American Civil Liberties Union, said at the CSIS event, according to the Defense One article. “Mass surveillance by use of drones is both something very far away but also very near … The technology will move very quickly.”

The Unmanned Systems In Homeland Security reads in part: “Advances in unmanned systems technology and use present both an opportunity and a threat for the HSE. They may increase the congestion of airspace, roads, and waterways and the likelihood of accidents, as well as misuse by bad actors.” Moran is right – that is scary.

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