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High anxiety on the Hill about civilian drone use

- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 19, 2012

When it comes to drones, the DHS is MIA, lawmakers said Thursday.

Members of Congress from both parties fear that the Department of Homeland Security hasn't crafted adequate security protocols for the looming explosion of private, domestic drone use.

Witnesses, including a University of Texas professor who hijacked a drone last month, told the House Homeland Security subcommittee on oversight, investigations and management that, with the proper equipment and expertise, it's relatively easy to jam drones' GPS signals and take control of them.

Drones, also called unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs, are currently used only by the military and law enforcement agencies.

But they will be available for commercial and personal use beginning in 2015, and critics say the federal government isn't considering how dangerous they could be in the wrong hands.

"We are on the edge of a new horizon," said Rep. Michael T. McCaul, Texas Republican and subcommittee chairman. "The Department of Homeland Security's mission is to protect the homeland. It should not take a 9/11-style attack by a terrorist organization to cause DHS to develop guidance on the security implications of domestic drones."

The Federal Aviation Administration will be responsible for issuing drone permits, and will monitor UAVs in the sky in much the same way it does now for traditional planes and helicopters.

A Homeland Security spokesman Thursday referred all drone questions to the FAA, and would not say why the department turned down Mr. McCaul's invitation to appear before his panel Thursday.

The panel did not hear from any representatives from the FAA.

Mr. McCaul said the risks drones pose to U.S. citizens and infrastructure is clear.

In September, Rezwan Ferdaus, a 26-year-old Massachusetts man, was accused by federal authorities of planning to attack the Capitol building and the Pentagon with UAVs packed with explosives.

The FBI foiled the plan, but analysts say the federal government should expect similar attacks in the future.

In 2015, analysts say, it will be easy for anyone with enough cash to buy a drone and potentially turn it into a weapon.

But the risk doesn't stop there, said Todd Humphreys, the University of Texas at Austin scholar who last month, along with several of his graduate students, hijacked a surveillance drone to demonstrate holes in their security systems.

Mr. Humphreys used a video demonstration to show lawmakers how tech-savvy hackers could crack a drone's GPS signal and control it from miles away.

"It opens up vulnerability. [UAVs] have a detailed structure, but they don't have any built-in protection against counterfeiting" a GPS signal, he said. "The FAA, its culture and its expertise is geared more toward safety than security. I think it is fair to say the DHS may have a role to play in drawing these rules or regulations [governing drones]. I'm worried they could be a weapon in the arsenal of organized crime" or terrorists.

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