Drones & Digital Intelligence
Written by Leeor Ben-Peretz   

ONCE ONLY THE DOMAIN OF HOBBYISTS, commercial drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, have become wildly popular with usage increasing for work, play, and everything in between. Whether the application is photographing houses for real estate listings, determining how best to plant seeds and water crops, or delivering medicine to rural areas, drones are now easier to use, smaller and less expensive. So with the barrier of entry for owning your own drone never lower, and consumer demand at an all-time high, it’s no surprise that global sales hit 2.2 million with revenue at $4.5 billion and the market is expected to grow 28% through 2022.

As drone adoption booms, criminals unfortunately are exploiting these devices to carry out unlawful acts, from spying on neighbors to full-blown militarization of the devices by terrorist groups. The relatively cheap price point of drones, ease of use, payload carrying capability, and long “untethered” range provide useful options for smuggling, surveillance, and even launching kinetic attacks.

Law enforcement has been challenged to stay ahead of an onslaught of criminal drone crimes. Late last year a drone operator dropped leaflets into Levi’s Stadium and Oakland Coliseum during an NFL game. Another criminal drone-use case that may hit closest to home for parents was carried out in Akron, Ohio where a “talking” drone with an attached speaker was spotted trying to lure children away from a playground. On a global scale, there are even more ominous drone crimes involving ISIS fighters militarizing civilian drones, and criminals increasingly using drones to smuggle contraband across national borders or into prisons.

Clearly, criminals are going to continue to use drones to commit crimes, and will undoubtedly expand into more systemic threats such as infiltrating and compromising infrastructure, and exploiting sensitive facility vulnerabilities. Faced with those realities, law enforcement must find a way to rise to the occasion.

Unique Challenges for Law Enforcement

Tackling criminal drone use presents complex and technical challenges. Often, investigators are left with only one piece of the drone, either the controller or the drone itself. If there is only access to the controller, extracting data without the right tools could be impossible. Even when law enforcement does have the means to access the data, conducting a full and forensically sound extraction can be a delicate process.

The analysis part of the investigative process is additionally daunting. The amount of evidence extracted from the drone can be massive in volume and difficult to manage and analyze. This can then result in investigators wasting precious time unraveling loose ends, instead of searching for a criminal. Furthermore, some tools do not fill in the many different information gaps. For instance, while investigators may have serial number data showing where the drone was purchased and perhaps who bought it, they may not know where the device has traveled, what it was doing (for example, capturing images), or whether the drone had a payload and, if it did, where it might have been dropped.

Real-World Application

Consider a prison-smuggling scenario involving criminals using drones to drop contraband such as cell phones, drugs, and weapons into the waiting hands of inmates in a prison courtyard. You might ask how such a thing could happen. While drones flying at lower altitudes can be seen and heard by guards, drones are virtually invisible at 750 feet. That altitude is easily attainable, and a drop from that height can be controlled with a passable degree of accuracy so that hitting a prison courtyard is an easy mission. With higher-end commercial drones able to carry payloads exceeding 10 lbs., criminals also have plenty of lift and range to support a remote payload release mechanism delivering contraband such as a cell phone wrapped in protective foam.

Criminal use of drones for prison-smuggling is only one of many recorded cases. One brazen example in the U.K. involved criminals launching at least 49 drone flights to move an estimated $1 million in contraband. The criminal launch area was discovered by a wildlife camera.

Given the ease of perpetrating this type of low-profile crime, and the relatively inexpensive cost of entry, it’s likely that many instances of criminal drone activity go undetected. Based on this, it’s safe to assume that criminal drones will only become a more pervasive problem.

The Role of Digital Intelligence

Fortunately, the robust capabilities of digital intelligence solutions have great application to criminal investigations involving drones. With digital forensic solutions, law enforcement can efficiently extract data from the drone. Digital analytics tools help gain access to existing databases, and match extracted data with that of similar unsolved cases and potential repeat criminals. The results can speed up the process of analyzing and mining the most relevant data, ensuring digital evidence is quickly discovered to accelerate the investigation.

Supported by these types of digital intelligence tools, law enforcement can literally transform its investigations of drone crimes. Capabilities such as the ability to pinpoint and leverage only the most relevant digital evidence, files, and images—all with little lag time—enable law enforcement to use digital intelligence to form and corroborate conclusions during the investigation. Armed with easily navigable information, departments can also compare digital evidence to similar cases, place those cases in a broader context, and even leverage this to be more predictive in policing drones.

Building a Stronger Case

At every step of collecting and analyzing digital evidence, whether at the scene of the crime or later in a laboratory, there are always new challenges for investigators and examiners. And when devices such as drones also involve strongly encrypted or deleted data, investigative teams face a real roadblock to building the strongest case possible.

The matter is made more complicated because drone crimes carry their own set of unique challenges. Without the right technology to access data in a forensically sound manner, investigative teams can face special obstacles. Let’s say investigators discover a crashed drone—either with or without the controller intact—after the criminal has fled the scene. Without the right digital tools, they would be faced with logistically difficult extraction challenges. Fortunately, digital technology advances now allow for precise removal of drone information; often without the risk of physically accessing an SD card or other hardware. With these proven, safe processes, extracted data can remain intact, reliable, and provide the framework to support a successful conviction.

Drone Digital Intelligence for a Safer World

Timely access to data from a controller device and/or drone is only the first step to solve crimes involving these unmanned aerial vehicles. In addition to securing device ownership information, they might also need other digital data such as the most recent mission and historical route information (launch and retrieval points, route travelled, altitude, etc.), as well as performance data of the drone that would reveal payload information such as weight and drop location.

Even after successfully extracting all the digital data from the drone, law enforcement needs the ability to easily share evidence and findings with other departments and prosecutors. This necessary collaboration is key not only to optimize the digital evidence, but also to gain insights into broader trends, and eventually to help to build and solve the case.

As more digital intelligence solutions are leveraged to preempt and solve drone crimes, investigative teams will be able to stay ahead of the criminals and help prevent new crimes from occurring. However, a reactive, “business as usual” approach to criminal drone activity will likely result in these perpetrators becoming even more sophisticated and expanding their use of drones into other crime types.

The only clear path for law enforcement dealing with criminal drones must be to build competency founded on a digital-intelligence repertoire. By effectively leveraging digital intelligence in this proactive, efficient way, investigative teams will be well positioned to aggressively counteract criminal drone crimes —both today and tomorrow.

About the Author

Leeor Ben-Peretz is Cellebrite's executive vice president of products & strategy and focuses on product management, business development, and advanced services. He has been instrumental in driving the evolution of the company's offering from a single hardware-based product to a rich portfolio of innovative products, solutions, and services.


This article appared in the Fall 2018 issue of Evidence Technology Magazine.
Click here to read the full issue.


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