Those magnificent men with their hacking machines

Ah, that age-old problem: you’re wandering around with your laptop trying to steal Wi-Fi, hack into wireless networks, or just hit some sucker with a DOS attack, but then you find your potential victim lives in a huge mansion with grounds so big you can’t get within range of his router.

If you’re just messing about, you’ll probably relocate to a coffee shop where it’s easy pickings. But if you’re a little more ambitious, well, why not bring in a small plane.

Yes, unmanned drones are no longer for bombing enemy combatants or sneaking illicit video footage. Two security researchers have now shown they can be adapted for very literal wireless hacking.

Richard Perkins and Mike Tassey told the Black Hat security conference how they souped up a $300 drone with a gadgetry including a video camera, a Wi-Fi dongle, and even a miniature antenna that can pose as a GSM cellphone tower to intercept calls. The drone even has an electronic dictionary of 340 million words in case a brute force attack is needed to find a password.

While the drone is legally required to stay under 400 feet, the creators say that’s high enough, and the device quiet enough, that it could fly overhead without necessarily attracting attention. According to Perkins and Tassey, all the equipment used on the drone was purchased legally. One drawback is that it must be in the line of sight for take-off and landing, but can be put on autopilot while airborne. It has a flight time of 30 to 45 minutes.

The pair say they built the drone to show the potential security risks if more criminally minded people used the same tactics. But they do say it could be used for military purposes, such as relaying messages or jamming enemy signals, as well as legitimate civilian life purposes such as providing emergency cellphone access after a natural disaster.

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