Drone data is a digital forensics gold mine


We may now be hurtling toward the mass adoption of drones for everyday use.

Drones are delivering UPS orders around the WakeMed medical campus in North Carolina, sending vaccines to remote parts of Ghana, and monitoring hard-to-reach habitats of orangutans in Borneo. During the devastating fire at Notre Dame cathedral, the Paris Fire Brigade even deployed drones equipped with thermal imaging cameras that allowed firefighters to view hot spots within the massive structure.

What started as a hobbyist pursuit about a decade ago and continues to create odd, local stories of drones being shot out of the sky has begun to exhibit real potential for enterprises and law enforcement. In the near future, drones could be handling whole segments of a company’s supply chain, transporting unfinished product between factories, and making last-mile deliveries to consumers. As with any technology, they’ll also be used for nefarious purposes, like smuggling goods across borders and attacking critical infrastructure.

In 2018, the FAA reported over 1 million drone user registrations under its unmanned aerial systems (UAS) portal, though this number could grossly undercount the number of drones that are unregistered and being used under the radar.

Drones’ growing popularity is fueled by technological improvements, like an ability to perch and rest as birds do, as well as more affordable pricing. But their widespread accessibility also presents a critical challenge for law enforcement, as recently witnessed in Boston and Frankfurt. Drones pose a serious risk to public safety, privacy, and security if they can easily interrupt sporting events or halt traffic at airports.

Beyond the threat of flying into restricted airspace or over large public gatherings, the devices can also be used to commit more serious crimes, like transporting drugs across borders, carrying explosives or weaponry and finding residential targets to burglarize. These types of stories will only proliferate as drones become more powerful extensions of their human operators.

Whether drones are being used for legitimate purposes or criminal acts, mishaps, accidents, disputes, and broken laws are inevitable — all instances in which the data collected on the device will prove vital. In criminal cases and corporate disputes, smart phones, internet of things (IoT) devices, and wearables have already become critical sources of evidence.

Similarly, as drone usage expands, location, time, user information, and detailed flight metadata like speed, altitude, and battery level will become increasingly important. The addition of technologies like facial recognition will expand drones’ capabilities (for instance, the ability to positively verify the intended recipient of a drone-delivered package). And the trend toward storing data in the cloud will further enhance their usefulness in these instances. Like mobile and IoT devices, drones can now store far more data than the immediate capacity of their flash (eMMC) storage.

While the wealth of information pulled from drones is all well and good, the key is what you can do with that data once it’s been extracted, cleaned, and collated.

Using digital forensics software, drone log .dat files can be extracted and — with mapping overlays — trace a device’s home location, flight route, and timeline with vivid clarity. Data-parsing from drone applications like DJI Go and from drone cloud services like DJI cloud and SkyPixel can help identify a drone’s registered owner and allow someone to view any images or videos that are captured, all of which are accessible via detected login credentials or tokens.

For investigators, obtaining and establishing objective information about locations, movements, actors, and any relevant multimedia evidence is critical. Within existing legal frameworks, whether a drone is used in the commission of a crime (like smuggling drugs or explosives) or is simply “witness” to a crime, its data is treated similarly to the data captured by smartphones. For corporate investigations, this data could be used to assess an accident, or it could be collated to streamline and improve supply chain operations.

The capabilities and risks associated with increased drone usage are broadly tied to the onslaught of IoT and cloud-connected devices, which straddle the line between convenience for consumers and businesses and threats to individual privacy.

Today, that landscape includes digital assistants, smart speakers, connected doorbells and thermostats, and even biometric wearables. For digital forensic investigators, these devices generate quantitative data points that help tell a story — time, location, what was said, who provided inputs, and in what way a device may have been improperly managed, accidentally at fault, or used to commit a crime.

Drones, which present an exciting new solution to modern logistical and efficiency challenges, are no different. In the not-too-distant future, drones will become a familiar sight, ushering in a new avenue for businesses to investigate incidents and law enforcement to solve crimes.

Lee Reiber is the COO of Oxygen Forensics, a mobile device and cloud forensics software company.

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