Geofencing Drones for Security

February 5th, 2015

I previously commented on the implications of DJI from blocking drones from flying within a 15.5 mile radius of the White House. I noted that this technology poses a risk to government control of private technology.

Wired expands on this issue, with quotes from my colleague Ryan Calo:

Ryan Calo, a University of Washingtonlaw professor who studies robots and the law, traces the resistance to two sources. “One is a complaint about restricting innovation. The second one says you should own your own stuff, and it’s a liberty issue: corporate verses individual control and autonomy,” Calo says. “When I purchase something I own it, and when someone else controls what I own, it will be serving someone else’s interest, not mine.”

DJI, in other words, has flown into one a core discontent of the Internet age. Technology’s no-fly zones already are everywhere. Lexmark printers and Keurig coffee makers have been programmed to reject third-party ink cartridges and coffee pods. Auto dealers are beginning to install remote-control immobilizers in cars sold to sub-prime borrowers, so they can shut down a driver who’s delinquent with an auto payment (the technology already has resulted in a 100-vehicle automotive hack attack.) In 2009, some Kindle owners discovered Amazon has the power to remotely delete the book they’re reading, after the company purged George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm from e-book readers, an action Jeff Bezos later apologized for.

More from Parker Higgins at EFF:

As the White House reacted to the drone crash with a call for more regulation, the manufacturer of the downed quadcopter announced it would push a firmware update to all its units in the field, permanently preventing those drones from taking off or flying within 25km of downtown Washington DC.

The fate of small drone flights over DC may seem like a little thing—a spat worked out among private players. But these small battles shape the notion of what it means to own something and illustrate the growing control of manufacturers over user conduct.

This announcement may have been an effort by the manufacturer DJI, whose Phantom model is one of the most popular consumer drone units, to avoid bad press and more regulation. But it also reinforced the notion that people who “own” these drones don’t really own anything at all. The manufacturer can add or remove features without their agreement, or even their knowledge

Some may argue that since this is (for now) optional, drone enthusiasts can buy another brand. Yet, there is now a precedent for no-fly zones to mandated by the government:

“We do provide different layers of security to make it difficult to hack and get around,” says DJI’s Perry. But for those determined to avoid geofencing, “there’s an easy way to do that, which is to buy another quad-copter.”

That may be true for now, but it’s easy to see lawmakers and regulators jumping on DJI’s mandatory update as an easy cure, and mandating geofencing industrywide. When that happens, you can expect that circumventing drone firmware, for any reason, will become illegal, the same way hacking your car’s programming is illegal. One thing is for certain: Nobody willing to strap a bomb to a toy drone will be deterred.

This debate makes me think of arguments about gun control. Owning a gun in the District of Columbia can be quite dangerous. Yet, the Supreme Court recognized that the mere fact that a gun is dangerous, does not render it unprotected. Alas, the Supreme Court has not (yet) recognized a right to keep and bear arms outside the home. Maybe one day this will come up. Then wait till the argument is made that drones are protected by the 2nd Amendment.