President Biden announced the first whole-of-government plan to address drone threats yesterday.
Drones or unmanned/uncrewed aerial systems (UAS) provide many commercial and recreational benefits but can also be exploited for pernicious purposes. The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) says UAS can be used for malicious schemes by terrorists, criminal organizations (including transnational organizations), and lone actors with specific objectives. Depending on power and payload size, CISA says UAS may be capable of transporting contraband, chemical, or other explosive/weaponized payloads as well as silently monitoring an area from the sky for nefarious purposes or stealing trade secrets, technologies or sensitive information. A great deal of harm and disruption may also be caused by individuals with no ill intent purely by operating their UAS in an unsafe manner.
CISA Program Manager Sarah Jacob wrote for Homeland Security Today in November, that the cyber threat from UAS is often overlooked. “There are two types of cyber threats from drones: external and internal,” Jacob explained. “Externally, adversaries may use the drone as a platform for other devices to launch a malicious cyberattack. In this use case, the drone can be programmed to use location to gain local network access and install malware that provides remote users access/privileges. Internally, the use of foreign-manufactured drones may compromise the security of sensitive operations and data collection. The United States government has strong concerns about certain foreign-manufactured drones that can collect and transfer potentially revealing data about the user’s operations and the individuals and entities operating them.”
The disruption caused by UAS at Gatwick Airport in the U.K. in December 2018 is widely known and continues to influence airport security planning the world over. More recently, UAS have been used to target both civilians and government officials. In November for example, a drone laden with explosives struck the home of Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, injuring six of his bodyguards in an apparent assassination attempt.
To prevent their growing use from threatening safety and security in the United States, the new Domestic Counter-UAS National Action Plan will set ground rules for the expanding uses of UAS and improve defenses against the exploitation of the technology for inappropriate or dangerous purposes.
Through the Plan, the Administration is working to expand where it can protect against nefarious UAS activity, who is authorized to take action, and how it can be accomplished lawfully. The Plan seeks to achieve this legitimate expansion while safeguarding the airspace, communications spectrum, individual privacy, civil liberties and civil rights. To achieve this balance, the Administration is calling on Congress to adopt legislation to close critical gaps in existing law and policy that currently impede government and law enforcement.
The Plan provides eight key recommendations for action:
- Work with Congress to enact a new legislative proposal to expand the set of tools and actors who can protect against UAS by reauthorizing and expanding existing counter‑UAS authorities for the Departments of Homeland Security, Justice, Defense, State, as well as the Central Intelligence Agency and NASA in limited situations. The proposal also seeks to expand UAS detection authorities for state, local, territorial and Tribal (SLTT) law enforcement agencies and critical infrastructure owners and operators. The proposal would also create a Federally-sponsored pilot program for selected SLTT law enforcement agency participants to perform UAS mitigation activities and permit critical infrastructure owners and operators to purchase authorized equipment to be used by appropriate Federal or SLTT law enforcement agencies to protect their facilities;
- Establish a list of U.S. Government authorized detection equipment, approved by Federal security and regulatory agencies, to guide authorized entities in purchasing UAS detection systems in order to avoid the risks of inadvertent disruption to airspace or the communications spectrum;
- Establish oversight and enablement mechanisms to support critical infrastructure owners and operators in purchasing counter-UAS equipment for use by authorized Federal entities or SLTT law enforcement agencies;
- Establish a National Counter-UAS Training Center to increase training accessibility and promote interagency cross-training and collaboration;
- Create a Federal UAS incident tracking database as a government-wide repository for departments and agencies to have a better understanding of the overall domestic threat;
- Establish a mechanism to coordinate research, development, testing, and evaluation on UAS detection and mitigation technology across the Federal government;
- Work with Congress to enact a comprehensive criminal statute that sets clear standards for legal and illegal uses, closes loopholes in existing Federal law, and establishes adequate penalties to deter the most serious UAS-related crimes; and
- Enhance cooperation with the international community on counter‑UAS technologies, as well as the systems designed to defeat them.
“The Biden-Harris Administration’s C-UAS National Action Plan and legislative proposal are vital to enabling DHS and our partners to have the necessary authorities and tools to protect the public, the President and other senior officials, federal facilities, and U.S. critical infrastructure from threats posed by the malicious and illicit use of unmanned aircraft systems,” said Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas. “These threats are increasing at home and abroad, and the Plan and legislative proposal call for the reauthorization and expansion of DHS’s C-UAS authority to help keep our communities safe. The Plan and legislative proposal also support the safe integration of unmanned aircraft systems for recreational and commercial use.
“DHS will continue to judiciously implement its C-UAS authorities, while protecting privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties. We look forward to working with Congress and key stakeholders across every level of government, in the private sector, and civil society on this critical Plan and related legislation.”
The Department of Justice (DOJ) issued a statement in strong support of the Plan and said it, along with DOJ’s legislative proposal sent to Congress on April 19, would fill a gap in federal criminal laws to prosecute the most malicious and dangerous uses of drones. DOJ highlighted the element of the Plan that would incrementally extend relief from federal criminal laws to state, local, territorial and tribal (SLTT) law enforcement entities to use technology to detect, and in limited circumstances, mitigate UAS threats under appropriate controls and Federal oversight. “The threat posed by the criminal use of drones is increasing and evolving, and department components cannot protect everyone, everywhere, all the time,” DOJ cautioned.
In the coming weeks, departments and components will engage with Congress and key stakeholders across the government, private sector, law enforcement and society on the Plan and legislative proposal.