Drones and the “Internet of Things-Style Surveillance Network”

By Jack Goldsmith
Monday, May 2, 2016, 7:20 PM

Nextgov reports that the State Department has put out a request for information for a wireless intrustion detection system that the story describes as an “Internet of Things-style surveillance network.”

[The] department is gathering information about technology that could identify, geolocate, and log electronic devices within a 10-foot "designated zone of control," potentially detecting attempts to leech sensitive data.

The "Wireless Intrusion Detection System" would map devices as they emit radio frequency signals in and around consulates, embassies and other foreign service posts, whose security is maintained by the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security.

Ideally, one sensor could detect devices using Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and cellular networks, the posting said; the security team would mount these sensors in ceiling tiles, within containers with tamper sensors. The system should provide identifying information about the device, including MAC address, signal strength, connection status or whether it's transmitting information, and potential intrusions.

This story has many interesting implications, but one that comes to mind concerns drones. Many think that drones or UAVs are all-powerful intelligence-gathering and killing machines because they pose no human risk to the attacker and can linger and collect information on a target until just the right moment and then strike immediately. However, almost all of the successes that drones have achieved in the last decade have come in airspace unguarded by air defenses. There is no public data that I know of that assesses how drones will do in contested air space. (Please let me know if I am wrong.) I understand that drone manufacturers are working on stealth drones, mini-drones, etc., all of which might perform well against more sophisticated air defenses. But there’s a surprising lack of discussion of counter-drone technology in the literature about drone proliferation and dominance.

I think it is very hard to predict whether offense-enhancing (or defense-evading) drone capabilities will develop faster or with greater dominance than analogous advances in defense. It is easy to imagine sophisticated successors to wireless intrusion detection systems disrupting, and disabling the various communications or related systems that empower offensive drones. Drone designers would of course seek to develop technologies to evade such systems, but it is not obvious ex ante whether offense or defense will prevail here.