The Department of Homeland Security is responsible for oversight of security related to unmanned aerial drones in domestic U.S. airspace, despite the Department's claim to the contrary. That is the unanimous, bipartisan sentiment of members of the Homeland Security Oversight & Investigations Subcommittee and witnesses ranging from law enforcement to privacy experts who testified at a hearing today. DHS refused to supply a witness.
The hearing on domestic use of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) exposed the proliferation of drones in US airspace by organizations including law enforcement, vulnerabilities to hacking of drones and the potential threats they pose to national security. The Department's failure to provide a witness illustrates it could be reverting back to a pre-9/11 mindset that the 9/11 Commission described as a lack of imagination in identifying threats.
"We had a direct threat to the Capitol of the United States and the Pentagon, and yet they don't see it as a role of the Department of Homeland Security to come up with a policy and security assessment to monitor the threat that these domestic drones can pose to the American people," said Congressman Michael McCaul (R-TX), the subcommittee Chairman, referencing a threat foiled by the FBI involving a plot to use drones laden with explosives. "I believe the department shouldcome before this committee to answer why they believe they should not have a role in this."
"Clearly this is an emerging threat and it is certainly within the jurisdiction of DHS to respond to this committee's request of where they stand," said Congresswoman Yvette Clarke (D-NY).
While the FAA is responsible for ensuring UAS's fly safely in US airspace, with only two and a half years until drones begin to dominate the skies, no federal agency is taking the lead to develop the relevant policies and guidelines for their use. This is despite the fact that four years ago the Government Accountability Office recommended DHS examine the security implications of future, non-military UAS operations in the national airspace system and take any actions deemed appropriate.
"We still think that our recommendation is valid and needing to be addressed," testified Gerald Dillingham, Ph.D. of the GAO.
The FAA has granted more than 200 Certificates of Authority to operate drones to more than 100 entities. Those numbers are expected to reach the thousands within five years. The urgency for guidelines is building as civilian use drones have been identified as targets for use by terrorist organizations as weapons and vulnerable to hacking.
Dr. Todd Humphreys, an engineering professor at the University of Texas at Austin, successfully hacked into and commandeered a drone in flight while working with DHS to identify security vulnerabilities. He exposed a universal vulnerability in the GPS navigation systems used in all non-military grade drones. While most civilian drones today are small, he proposes guidelines that would require UAS's weighing at least 18 pounds to have spoof-proof navigation systems. "What my nightmare scenario would be is looking forward three or fouryears where we have now adopted the UAS's in the national airspace without addressing this problem and now the problem is scaling up, so that we've got more heavy UASs, more capable UASs," Dr. Humphreys testified.
"DHS seems either disinterested or unprepared to step up to the plate to address the proliferation of drones, the potential threats they pose to our national security, and the concerns of our citizens of how drones flying over our cities will be used including protecting civil liberties of individuals under the Constitution," Chairman McCaul said, noting the need for guidelines for how law enforcement will use drones. "What most Americans don't want to see is eyes in the sky spying on the American people."
In turn, the need for federal guidance from a law enforcement perspective has also surfaced. This year the FAA denied authorization for the Montgomery Co. (TX) Sheriff's Office to deploy its drone, citing the need for a life-and-death situation. "They (FAA) do not have the understanding, the expertise, that I believe an agency such as the DHS would have in understanding the operational roles and missions that, in our case, law enforcement would have and the needs that we would have," testified Montgomery Co. Chief Deputy Randy McDaniel.
Privacy expert Amie Stepanovich from the Electronic Privacy Information Center, agreed with the need for DHS action and urged DHS's Privacy Office to immediately conduct a privacy impact assessment related to domestic drone use.
Chairman McCaul and Ranking Member Bill Keating (D-MA) have agreed to introduce legislation requiring DHS to work with the Department of Justice and the FAA to ensure privacy and security concerns are addressed before widespread deployment of drones is authorized in 2015.