Geography, Drones, and Criminals

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As police and security personnel get better at using drones, and their deployment becomes much more common, the opposite side of the law comes up with uses for them as well. Combine drones with high definition mapping, and a whole new class of criminal is created, one that uses technology to get away with a variety of crimes.

How does it work, and what are we doing about catching them? Here are a few examples of how criminals are using drones.

Drones used in Prison Breaks

Stories abound of daring prison breaks where inmates go years without being captured. In fact, there are still a number of cases where escapees could very well still be alive and in hiding somewhere. The use of helicopters, rope ladders, bed sheets, and more were once common methods of misdirection and dramatic escape.


However, such stories are rare now, thanks in large part to law enforcement’s effective use of technology. There have been issues of drones being used to smuggle contraband into prisons and jails, including things like cell phones, drugs, and porn. Once reliant on a crack drone pilot and maybe a guard bribed to look the other way, high definition cameras, avoidance systems, and even high definition mapping make this even easier for the criminal element.

At the same time priorities are shifting from punitive measures like solitary confinement, and more toward rehabilitation measures, which means prisoners have a certain amount of freedom they would not have had before. While in the long run, this has seen as a good thing, for those trying to stop drone smuggling into prison, it creates yet another boundary.

Recently in Great Britain, a drone was used to smuggle in another kind of contraband: a diamond cutter. That same cutter enabled two inmates to cut through the bars of a fifth story window in what is now known as the Diamond Cutter Jailbreak. They then made their daring escape by making their way on to the top of the prison wall and lowering themselves with ropes made from bed sheets. Clothes and mannequin heads convinced the guards the two were in their beds until approximately 11:45 the next morning.

The two were subsequently caught, and admitted to the break and the method they used. But how do officials plan to stop such things in the future?

Especially at night, drones are hard to spot unless you are wearing night vision goggles, and hard to intercept even if they are spotted. In the echoing environment of a prison yard, it’s difficult to locate which direction the sound of a drone is coming from. If a guard can see where contraband was dropped, they can intercept that before inmates can retrieve it. So far the solution for defense against such actions is undetermined, but officials are trying different tactics in different areas to see which is more effective.

Drone. Photo: Kwangmo.
Drone. Photo: Kwangmo.

Drones for Prison Scouting

In major metropolitan areas, there is a push for near-real time high definition mapping. No longer is the every few months refresh of Google maps imagery good enough: self-driving cars and the prospect of drone delivery require much more up to date information.

This means a few things, beneficial to both the criminal element and the legal one.

  • GIS data is more precise. High definition mapping means that with much more certainty a building’s location or the location of other physical objects is much more precise. This is good news for business and even law enforcement. However the data can have a more malicious application.
  • Seeing drones is common. An individual with even a small recreational drone can make their own high definition map with a few simple GIS software tools and a good camera. SInce seeing drones on such flights is commonplace, if it is engaged by a criminal to scout an area, it’s unlikely to be suspicious.
  • Security can be easily evaluated. On both sides of the law, it is easy for a short drone flight to spot weaknesses in security. On the good side, those deficiencies can be corrected. On the bad side, those deficiencies can be both spotted and exploited.

In short, evaluation of a target, security wise, can be done quite easily with a drone. What is the solution for law enforcement and security? Beat the criminals at their own game. Do your own drone based security evaluations, and be aware of drone flights in the area.

Drones as Surveillance

One thing every criminal element needs is a lookout, but why not an automated one with night vision, or even more than one? Relatively inexpensive drones equipped with decent night vision camera is relatively easy to come by and deploy.

This, of course, works both ways. Drones can also be used to patrol a property without revealing their presence the way a person or a dog might. With collision avoidance technology and other innovations, drones are becoming a more popular and affordable security option.

How do police counter this type of lookout? The challenge is the ability to rapidly tell the difference between “friendly” and hostile drones, and use alternate routes and more stealthy approaches when responding to possible crime scenes. Lights and sirens might get officers to the scene faster, but may alert criminals faster.

Already law enforcement dispatch teams use software to route the closest officers to respond as quickly as possible, but using security cameras and information about drone flights and security, they can also be used to plan a stealthy response. The cameras might have to just as often be pointed at the sky as they are at the ground in the near future.

A Vision of Crimes in the Future

Criminals are getting awfully creative with drones: Ted talk by Marc Goodman:

[youtube id=”E97Kgi0sR4″]

Drones Used in Financial Theft

Finding an ATM is easy. We have mapped them, and all of us have those maps at our fingertips on our phones. So do criminals.

High definition cameras on drones can record our activity at those ATMs, including card numbers and our personal identification numbers as we punch them in. Along with the danger of false card readers embedded in the machines that collect your card information and your PIN, this is another reason to be cautious about the use of ATMs.

This type of theft can be avoided several ways.

  • Be Aware of Your Surroundings: When approaching an ATM, especially at night, caution is a good idea. Looking up and around for drones is a good idea along with normal precautions.
  • Cameras Pointed Up: Banks should now have 360 degree cameras or those pointed up specifically to look for drones.
  • Use Card Readers and Apps instead of cash: Instead of going to the ATM in the first place, use apps to exchange money, or have a card reader like Square and be aware of how it works.
  • Encourage Frequent Law Enforcement Checks: Law enforcement should check areas where ATMs are located frequently, as should private security, being aware of any suspicious drone activity.

High definition mapping has always been a useful tool on both sides of the law. Using drones is simply an updated application of it. As criminals become more sophisticated in their use of technology, law enforcement will have to keep up. While the addition of metal detectors is an important step in ensuring the security of the public, perhaps a bigger threat is the drone that can fly over or around traditional security measures and travel to precise, previously mapped locations.

The challenges of technology and GIS in the hands of criminals will be best met by equipping law enforcement and private security with those same tools.



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