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Biz claims it's reverse-engineered encrypted drone commands

The internet of sh*t hits the rotor

By Simon Sharwood, 24 Jan 2017

US company Department 13 claims it has been able to reverse-engineer several popular drones' commands, even when they are encrypted before transmission.

The company yesterday launched a product called MESMER that it says offers users the ability to take control of drones flown by third parties. The suggested use case is to seize control of drones that unexpectedly appear in public spaces or at events where many people congregate, on suspicion they are being used by criminals or terrorists to carry weapons.

Jonathan Hunter, CEO of Department 13, told The Register his company has reverse-engineered and “cracked” the signalling protocols used by the likes of Parrot, DJI and 3DR by observing the radio signals that are sent to and from the craft. Hunter said the company's approach meant encryption was not a barrier to understanding signals sent to drones

Even when commands are encrypted, Hunter said encryption implementations in drones are flawed.

“We are yet to see anyone implement encryption well,” he told The Register. “They [drone-makers] are not making it NSA-proof. There is always a known exploit.”

Hunter declined to detail his work on grounds that doing so would give criminals the information they need to develop countermeasures to MESMER. Some of his language was also a little vague – he continually referred to “protocols” without clarifying if he was referring to the ISM radio bands or the proprietary commands drone-makers use to communicate with their craft.

In response to The Register's assertion, that between his reticence to discuss details and seeming confusion MESMER seemed perhaps too good to be true, Hunter said his staff includes the author of the widely-used Kismet WiFi sniffer and former employees of Silent Circle. The implication being he's built a highly credible team.

“We want to be the anti-virus of drones,” he said, claiming US defence clients are already using MESMER. ®

The Register - Independent news and views for the tech community. Part of Situation Publishing