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Wireless drone sniffs Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, phone signals

At Black Hat, a pair of security engineers show off prototype UAV bristling with antennas that can eavesdrop on Wi-Fi, phone, and Bluetooth signals.

caption: Mike Tassey (l) and Rich Perkins (r) describe how they retrofitted a U.S. Army surplus target drone.
caption: Mike Tassey (l) and Rich Perkins (r) describe how they retrofitted a U.S. Army surplus target drone.
Declan McCullagh/CNET

LAS VEGAS--Forget Wi-Fi war driving. Now it's war flying.

A pair of security engineers showed up at the Black Hat security conference here to show off a prototype that can eavesdrop on Wi-Fi, phone, and Bluetooth signals: a retrofitted U.S. Army target drone, bristling with electronic gear and an array of antennas.

"Nobody's really looking at this from a threat perspective," said Mike Tassey, a security consultant who works for the U.S. government intelligence community. "There's some pretty evil stuff you can do from the sky."

The term war driving, meaning searching for Wi-Fi networks from a moving vehicle, was coined approximately a decade ago, of course (here's a CNET article from 2002). But aerial drones can gain access to places that might be off-limits to vehicles--and, in theory, can follow a moving signal surreptitiously from above.

Their prototype Wi-Fi drone, which was brought on stage yesterday but not flown, is made of reinforced foam and can carry 20 pounds. They added landing gear, a 2.5 horsepower motor powered by lithium polymer batteries, a telemetry link, an onboard computer running Ubuntu, and a payload of wireless sniffers and network-cracking tools.

"We can identify a target by his cell phone and follow him home to where enterprise security doesn't reach," Rich Perkins, a security engineer who describes his job as "supporting the U.S. government" and co-created the drone. "We can reverse engineer someone's life."

The drone--which they dubbed WASP, for Wireless Aerial Surveillance Platform--can stay aloft for about an hour. While it's an autonomous unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, in flight, the initial version requires manual operator control for takeoffs and landings. (It cost them between $6,000 and $7,000 to build in a garage, they said, not counting their own time.)

Their ulterior motive, however, is to do more than describe their wireless-sniffing prototype: it was to offer a warning about how terrorists and criminals can use UAVs in ways that traditional military and law enforcement may not be expecting.

"UAVs pose a couple of unique challenges to people who are responsible for protecting things," Tassey said.

Even the modest payload of UAVs could be devastating in biological or radiological attacks. Drug smugglers--or, perhaps, pharmaceutical entrepreneurs--could carry around $400,000 in heroin through one flight across a national border. And the small size of UAVs, and virtually nonexistent presence on radar, make them a challenge to detect and shoot down.

"There's no requirement for good intentions," Perkins said.