Uncovered flight records reveal police drone surveillance paths and how cops use them to spy on homes of suspects

  • A security flaw was uncovered at the drone services company DroneSense
  • The company provides support for the Atlanta Police Department and others
  • Flight records show police using drones for surveillance and mapping

Flight records and related materials from police drone programs have been uncovered following a security breach at DroneSense, which provides services to a number of private corporations and government agencies.

The records included flight paths, pilot names and email addresses, and operation names from more than 200 different drone flights, offering insight into how police use drones in day to day law enforcement.

The records come from drone operations at the Atlanta Police Department, Nassau County Police Department, and others. 

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A security breach at DroneSense provided access to some records that show how police use drones, which include surveillance and city mapping

A security breach at DroneSense provided access to some records that show how police use drones, which include surveillance and city mapping

The files also included information from other DroneSense clients, including Boise Fire Department, City of Coral Springs, and the US Army Corps of Engineers.

According to a report in Vice, the records show a number of different police drone operations, including the Atlanta police using a drone to surveil an apartment complex and nearby parking lot.

In another operation, Washington DC police used a drone for a ‘Mapping Mission’ involving nearly two dozen so-called “capture points,” likely referring to spots for the drone to photograph. 

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The flaw in DroneSense’s security protocols was first discovered by cybersecurity researcher Noam Rotem.

DroneSense provides a number of general capabilities through its drone services, including a secure live video feed from the drone pilot’s which can be monitored by anyone with security credentials using a smartphone or tablet.

The company also advertises tools to convert drone photographs and video into highly detailed 2D and 3D maps for ‘tactical planning and visualization.’

These maps can include general topography, weather, and even flight paths of other drones in the area.

DroneSense gives its clients access to software that creates highly detailed 2D and 3D tactical maps using photos and video from drone flights

DroneSense gives its clients access to software that creates highly detailed 2D and 3D tactical maps using photos and video from drone flights

‘Within minutes of this notification, DroneSense identified and corrected a security flaw which had exposed a list of organization names within the DroneSense platform and, for a limited number of organizations, account data,’ the company said via a statement to Vice.

‘At no time were live video streams or customer uploaded images, videos, documents, or media of any kind exposed by this flaw.’

599 law enforcement agencies across the country have drone programs of some kind, according to a 2018 study from Bard College.

With a secure login, DroneSense clients can access a live video feed of a drone pilot's view during a flight

With a secure login, DroneSense clients can access a live video feed of a drone pilot’s view during a flight

Because these programs rely on specialized technology, law enforcement agencies often have to rely on third party vendors, which exposes them to security risks.

‘Surveillance vendors often provide sales pitches that emphasize everything that can go right when a technology is deployed, but rarely do they address what might happen when the technology fails,’ Dave Maass of Electronic Frontier Foundation said.

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‘This latest incident indicates that law enforcement should exercise more skepticism when acquiring new surveillance systems’



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