The Very Real Risks of Using Drones for Security Purposes

using drones for security

One reason drones were such a hot topic at the ISC West conference in April was, certainly, because manufacturers are pushing the technology. They were in Las Vegas in force, explaining the risk drones pose to security operations and, not coincidentally, how you can deploy counter-drones to protect against them. Consultants and trainers were there, too, offering their assistance to ready organizations for the “drone revolution.” In all, ISC West included nine education sessions on the topic.

But even if we’ve arrived at the point—common in an emerging technology’s life cycle—where prediction of commercial adoption exceeds realistic timetables, there is no doubt that security practitioners can’t altogether ignore the trend.

Drones are cheap and growing in popularity, and use cases are expanding—both positive and nefarious. “Is this something to be taken seriously? It absolutely is,” said Glen Sandford, CPP, in his presentation, “Drone Technology: Where are we and where are we headed?” Sandford is director of operations for Latin America and the Caribbean at At-Risk International, a risk management consulting firm.

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Sandford sees ample potential for teams to start using drones for security. For executive protection, to conduct advanced surveillance or to scan for specific threats, including people with the addition of facial recognition software. For cargo security, to protect shipments and remove security responsibilities from cargo operators. And for automated patrols.

“With drones, you can collect more information at less cost,” explained Sandford. Some retailers have already been looking into using drones. Walmart, for example, has previously requested permission from the Federal Aviation Administration to test drones for commercial purposes, specifically for more efficient supply chain inventory management using electronic surveillance equipment and other devices.

Sandford perceives an equal number of risks, including the prospect of adversaries using drones to conduct aerial surveillance, disrupt operations, instill fear, and, potentially, to carry out attacks. He noted that drones are currently being used to smuggle drugs across borders and drop propaganda at sports stadiums, and that jails in the United States have experienced a 700 percent increase in drone activity, as they drop cell phones and other contraband into prison yards.

Currently, capabilities to counter criminal uses of drones are inadequate, according to Sandford. Complicating countermeasures are FAA regulations that give it sole jurisdiction to airspace above private property and prohibit the damaging or destroying any aircraft, including drones. He said limitations placed on property owners have not been met by corresponding assistance from authorities. “What’s 9-1-1 for the FAA?” he asked.

Drone regulation will eventually catch up, but Sandford warned against waiting for regulators to provide protection against malevolent drone use. After all, he said, the FAA was formed in 1954, more than five decades after the Wright Brothers’ first flight. Sandford said there have been advances in signal jamming technology and drone-detecting radar, and said big nets can be fired to catch a drone mid-flight, but proven solutions—that both detect and disable drones—are practically non-existent. “I think we’re experiencing disconnect in terms of countermeasure capabilities,” he told ISC attendees.

Some retailers may see expansive possibilities for using drones for security purposes and choose to be early adopters, but most are likely to take a slower approach, waiting to see exactly which risks and security applications prove realistic. But even for loss prevention organizations that choose a wait-and-see approach, there are steps to take now, according to Mark Schreiber, CPP, CPD, principal consultant at Safeguards Consulting.

Schreiber also presented at ISC West on drone use and defense by security organizations. He thinks that there are some basic measures that all organizations should take today when it comes to using drones for security. “Security personnel need to be made aware of what a drone is, what they can do, what they sound like,” advised Schreiber. “It should be built into patrol procedures, so [security personnel] know to look up in the sky as well as around.” Part of security officer training should include instructions on using existing tools, such as camera-enabled cell phones, to document incidents of drone activity near company property.

Security organizations should also craft procedures for security personnel to follow in case they find a drone, including establishing chain of custody. In light of FAA restrictions on how companies can respond to a drone in flight, he suggested businesses should post “no-fly zone” signs that prohibit drones. “That’s something you can do right now,” he said. If a retail organization decides to develop a policy prohibiting the use of UAV on or above its property, then response procedures for store personnel should accompany it. How is staff to respond to a drone in its no-fly area? Will the event be reported to law enforcement or FAA?

On occasion, a drone could be useful. For example, a contractor might want to employ them to efficiently conduct store roof inspections. In cases where a flat “no-fly” rule is not desired, then an organization’s policy should identify the conditions that must be met before one is operated on company property. Operators who receive permission to operate a drone on a retail organization’s property should be warned of the safety risks, be given notice of “off-limit” areas, and provide evidence that operators are licensed.

Like Sandford, Schreiber warned that the legal landscape is likely to shift. “It’s an emerging technology and risks and tools are evolving, and the laws are significantly behind the curve.” As such, he said it’s necessary for security teams to keep abreast of changing regulations to stay current on what a drone program can and can’t entail.

For retailers, one use case that could prove valuable is incident response operations, suggested Schreiber. For example, stores on the Gulf Coast may have found trained, licensed drone operators valuable during last year’s recent hurricane season. “It might be a valuable way to assess damage in hard-to-access locations and to decide where to send in assets first,” said Schreiber. “You can fly in, look at a situation, and get the details you need to plan an appropriate response.”

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