The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The U.S. isn’t prepared for the growing threat of drones

A drone at the 2017 International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. (Mike Nelson/European Pressphoto Agency)

Kirstjen M. Nielsen is secretary of homeland security.

Drone technology offers the potential to change our world — from enabling historic transformations in e-commerce to faster emergency response. But the technology also has a dark side. It can be used to spy on us, to threaten our critical infrastructure, or to attack crowds and public places.

For years, the Department of Homeland Security has worried about the dangers of unmanned aerial systems, and we have sought the legal authority to protect Americans against corrupted aerial devices. Today I have a pressing message for Congress: Time is running out.

As secretary of homeland security, I can tell you that threat is outpacing our ability to respond. Without congressional action, the U.S. government will remain unable to identify, track and mitigate weaponized or dangerous drones in our skies.

Just last month, officials at U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported a spike in the use of drones at our borders. Transnational criminals are undoubtedly exploiting these systems to search for security gaps so they can avoid our officers and sneak into the country undetected.

Criminals are also using them to smuggle drugs. Last year, Border Patrol agents arrested a 25-year-old man for using a drone to ferry tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of methamphetamine across the southwest border, raising the specter that other dangerous goods could be transported the same way.

Worse still, terrorist groups such as the Islamic State aspire to use armed drones against our homeland and U.S. interests overseas. They have deployed bomb-laden aerial devices on the battlefield to surveil, disrupt and kill opposing forces, and they are sharing that expertise with others.

We have already worked with our partners to stop terrorist plots that could have involved drone technology. But we need to acknowledge that our first and last chance to stop a malicious drone might be during its final approach to a target.

Unfortunately, the laws on the books today were not written with weaponized drones in mind. As a result, the nation’s two biggest law enforcement departments — DHS and the Justice Department — have their hands tied when it comes to protecting Americans.

While we do have certain limited capabilities for scanning the skies for rogue drones, we largely lack the updated tools and most sophisticated authorities to monitor and mitigate inbound threats.

For instance, DHS should be able to access signals being transmitted between a nefarious drone and its ground controller to accurately geolocate both quickly. This could allow authorities to take control of the device or stop its operator on the ground to prevent a potential attack.

Yet current legal constraints prohibit us from doing so and from addressing other drone-threat scenarios, such as drones configured to operate without a human operator, which will require a separate set of solutions.

Worse still, we are prevented from even testing certain drone-defense technologies where we really need them, such as in urban environments to protect large gatherings and public events.

Some in Congress recognize these problems and have stepped up. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.), among others, have championed legislative fixes to give DHS and the Justice Department the authority to develop, test and deploy advanced and effective counter-drone technology.

The Defense Department already has similar authorities to protect U.S. forces overseas and certain domestic facilities. But it’s time we had them to protect Americans here at home.

We cannot afford to wait. Our enemies are aware of our vulnerabilities and eager to exploit them. So let’s stop admiring the problem and start solving it. The House and Senate should approve a legislative fix at the earliest possible opportunity.

Drones will soon become a part of everyday life. Before then, let’s make sure they don’t become an everyday threat.

Read more:

David Von Drehle: The security threat we’ve been ignoring: Terrorist drones

The Post’s View: What we should do to keep the skies safe in the age of drones

Kurt Volker: We need a rule book for drones

Benjamin Wittes and John Villasenor: FAA regulation of drones will challenge our privacy expectations

Letters to the Editor: Are intruding drones any different from human trespassers?