Drone have been used to drop bombs, spy on foreign countries and monitor how farmers work their fields. Now they could help hack into personal computers.
According to e-mails posted by WikiLeaks, military contractors may want to do just that. Boeing and Hacking Team — a Milan-based company criticized for selling surveillance software to repressive governments — were in talks earlier this year to plant malware on drones to perform such activities, according to the e-mails, which were stolen from Hacking Team in July.
According to an e-mail that summarizes the contents of a meeting between the two companies, Boeing was searching for a "ruggedized" network injector "transportable by drone (!)."
Drone and network analysts offer a scenario about how this type of technology could work:
A highly desired al-Qaeda operative is on the lam, hiding out in a bungalow in the foothills of some not-so-allied country, which may or may not be protecting him from U.S. detection. The American military could try hacking into that government's computer network to look for intelligence, but reaching across the globe through a keyboard is pretty hard and time-consuming.
Or, the military could put an unmanned drone in the air equipped with malware to fly over the highly desired operative's bungalow and conduct some surveillance.
That kind of hardware on an unmanned aircraft would give its user the ability to conduct cyberwarfare and espionage in ways that formerly required close proximity with the target, according to those analysts.
"You want to be able to place yourself in the middle of traffic to surveil it or gain access to it," said independent network researcher Collin Anderson. "What this gives you is the ability to be in the same room as all the other machines you’re tying to look out for."
A Hacking Team spokesman said Boeing and Hacking Team have "no business relationship at all."
Boeing, which makes the ScanEagle drone for the military and is pitching the Phantom Eye drone as well, declined to comment on its communication with Hacking Team but said in a statement that it is important to understand new hardware and software capabilities in order to offer them to clients.
"Understanding the payload technologies available to our customers in this market is essential to providing them with the services they require," Boeing said.
The ability to hack someone using a drone may be attractive for the military, said Michael Blades, a senior aerospace and defense industry analyst with Frost & Sullivan.
"We’re used to drones getting information from their sensors and cameras and stuff, but there’s nothing that says they can’t get information from a data link, or use malware in a drone to corrupt a system," he said. "Military clients would want that."
The kind of hacks drone operators would be able to conduct aren't incredibly advanced, say industry analysts, but they do give users a whole other suite of options to gather "signals intelligence," or information scraped from electronic signals or networks.
Disabling a WiFi network — which would curb an enemy's ability to communicate or fly their own drones — or creating a false network called a "honeypot" — which would allow hackers to access devices that connect to it — require proximity but not a lot of technical skill.
"Putting it on a drone sounds science fiction, but these tools are something that any high school student with a little technical knowledge can use," Collins said.
That means they could be more attractive to military-industry buyers, analysts say.
"There are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of beneficial economic applications that drones can do," said Colin Snow, chief executive and founder of Drone Analyst, a California-based civilian aircraft consultancy. "It replaces a lot of the dull, dirty and dangerous jobs."
And now, perhaps, they might also be able to help hack into your computer.