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Your drone knows quite a bit about you

Drones are becoming ever more popular. What most people miss is the amount of data they store and the risk of hacking on those data. Image credit: Bloomberg

That drones are becoming more and more popular is no secret. The figures for 2017 indicate (for the US) over 1 million drones registered to FAA out of 1.5 million flying in the US and their number is going to increase to 7 millions by 2020. Almost 3 million drones were sold worldwide in 2017, expected to rise to 7 million by 2020. Notably, as of 2017 only 20,000 drones were register for commercial use. Clearly the consumer market is taking the lion share although there is quite some expectation to see drones playing a role in the distribution chain (as well as starting operating as taxis in some areas, Dubai leading the pack),

DJI, the largest consumer drone manufacturers had 1.2 B$ revenues in 2017.

These are all significant numbers!

Something that may not be as known is that each drone is actually a repository of data. Part of these data are the ones the user of the drone collect (like taking video clips and photos), part are data the drone uses for navigation and operation monitoring.

Reading an article on Wired I discovered that drones are used to ferry illegal drugs across borders (that shouldn’t come as a surprise either!) and the police is getting more and more interested in mining the data out of these drones once they are captured.
You can read the full article for all the details. I just want to mention that each drone contains many personal data of the user both directly stored inside the drone and through the access to the person smart phone, used to control the drone (hence access to the owner credit card, as an example). The article points out that most of the time the owner is so excited about her new drone that as soon as it arrives it gets unpackaged and a short fly is in order. Clearly that flight occurs in the vicinity of the owers’ home, hence by retrieving the GPS data of that first flight the police can reasonably identify the owners home location.

Now, I do not own a drone (even though I have started to think about it for my photo hobby) and besides I wouldn’t objet to have the police looking at my drone data. However, the same article is pointing out the the security level is pretty weak and it wouldn’t take a lot of time to a hacker to hack a drone and get the data. So far there have not been blatant cases but two weeks ago a warning to DJI drones users was posted highlighting a security flaw that would make hacking possible.

I am mentioning DJI as it is the most popular drone manufacturer but the same goes for other brand. As with anything that can connect to the internet and becomes widespread there will be a strong incentive to hack into them. It will be a never ending story, I suspect, being aware of the risk and willing to take precaution is surely going to help.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the New Initiative Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He is a member of the IEEE in 2050 Ad Hoc Committee. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.


  1. Ciao Roberto,
    I was considering buying a drone for personal Photography. I was wandering whether the drone is connected to the internet. Otherwise hacking would be possible only “in flight” or when you connect it to a computer. can you clarify?