How to hide from a drone – the subtle art of 'ghosting' in the age of surveillance
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The federal government has used military border patrol drones like this one to monitor protests in US cities. _ Jonathan Cutrer/Flickr, CC BY-SA
Drones of all sizes are used by environmental activists to monitor deforestation, by conservationists to track poachers, and by journalists and activists to document large-scale protests. As a political sociologist studying social movements and drones, I am documenting a wide range of non-violent and pro-social drone operations in my new book, The Good Drone. I show that these efforts have the potential to democratize surveillance.
But when the Department of Homeland Security is diverting large fixed-wing drones from the US-Mexico border to monitor protests, and when cities are experimenting with testing people for fevers with drones, it's time to think about how many eyes there are in the sky and how to avoid unwanted aerial surveillance. One way that's within the reach of almost anyone is to learn how to just get out of sight.
Over the past decade, there has been an explosion in the use of drones by the general public – ordinary people with everyday technology doing interesting things. As drones enter the already crowded airspace, the Federal Aviation Administration is struggling to respond. More of these devices are likely to be seen in the skies in the near future, being flown by an ever-growing group of social, political and economic actors.
A law enforcement drone flew over protesters in Atlanta on Friday, June 5, 2020. AP Photo/Mike Stewart
Public opinion on the use and proliferation of drones is still up in the air, but the burgeoning use of drones has sparked numerous efforts to curb drones. These responses range from public policies that exercise community control over local airspace to the development of sophisticated jamming devices and tactics to take down drones.
From startups to major defense contractors, there is a scramble to deny drones airspace, digitally hijack drones, physically control drones, and shoot down drones. Anti-drone measures range from simple blunt force, 10-gauge shotguns, to the poetic: well-trained hawks.
Many of these anti-drone measures are expensive and complicated. Some are illegal. The cheapest – and most legal – way to evade drone technology is to hide it.
How to disappear
The first thing you can do to hide from a drone is to use the natural and built environment. It is possible to wait for inclement weather as smaller devices such as those used by local police have a hard time flying in high winds, thick fog and heavy rain.
More reliable than the weather, trees, walls, alcoves, and tunnels offer shelter from the Department of Homeland Security's high-flying drones.
Second, you can minimize your digital footprint. It is wise to avoid using wireless devices such as cell phones or GPS systems as they have digital signatures that can reveal your location. This is useful for dodging drones, but is also important for avoiding other privacy-invading technologies.
The third thing you can do is confuse a drone. Placing mirrors on the ground, standing over broken glass, and wearing elaborate hats, machine-readable blankets, or sensor-disrupting jackets can break up and distort the image a drone sees.
Mannequins and other forms of impersonation can confuse both the onboard sensors and the analysts tasked with monitoring the drone's video and sensor feeds.
Drones equipped with infrared sensors will see through the mannequin trick but are confused by tactics that mask body temperature. For example, a ceiling masks significant amounts of body heat, as does simply hiding in an area that matches body temperature, such as a building or an exhaust vent on a sidewalk.
The fourth and most practical way to protect yourself from drone surveillance is to wear a disguise. The rise of mass surveillance has led to an explosion of creative experiments aimed at disguising one's identity. But some of the brightest ideas are decidedly old-fashioned and low-tech. Clothing is the number one choice, as hats, glasses, masks and scarves play a major role in encrypting drone-based facial recognition software.
Your gait is as unique as your fingerprint. As gait recognition software evolves, it will be important to also mask the key pivot points used to identify the walker. The best response may be to avoid limping, use a small leg brace, or wear extremely loose clothing.
Artists and scientists have taken these approaches one step further, developing a hooded jacket designed to shield the wearer's thermal signature and mess up facial recognition software, and goggles designed to thwart facial recognition systems.
Have an umbrella ready
These innovations are tempting, but umbrellas might prove to be the most ubiquitous and robust tactic on this list. They are affordable, easy to transport, difficult to see and can be disposed of quickly. Also, if you want, you can build a high-tech gadget.
It would be nice to live in a world with fewer privacy restrictions, where law enforcement doesn't use small quadcopters and the Department of Homeland Security doesn't use large Predator drones to monitor protesters. And for people in some parts of the world, it would be nice not to associate the sound of a drone with an imminent missile attack. But since those eyes are in the sky, it's good to know how to hide.
Austin Choi-Fitzpatrick is the author of:
The good drone: How social movements are democratizing surveillance
MIT Press funded as a member of The Conversation US.
This article is republished by The Conversation, a nonprofit news site dedicated to exchanging ideas from academic experts. The Conversation has a variety of fascinating free newsletters.
Austin Choi-Fitzpatrick previously won an industry award from drone manufacturer DJI and his work was supported by the National Science Foundation. MIT Press funded as a member of The Conversation US.
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