Criminal Gang Used a Drone Swarm to Obstruct an FBI Hostage Operation

DENVER, CO – Authorities said a growing number of criminals are using drones for countersurveillance and disruption of law enforcement operations.

During the AUVSI conference in Denver, Colorado, Joel Mazel, head of the FBI’s operational technology law unit, described an incident in which a criminal gang used drones to disrupt an FBI hostage operation, Defense One reports. Mazel said last winter, an FBI hostage rescue team set up an elevated observation post to assess an unfolding situation.

During the incident, Mazel said the team soon noticed drones swooping around them in a series of “high-speed low passes at the agents in the observation post to flush them.” Mazel said the group lost situational awareness of the target as a result of the drones surveilling them.
“We were then blind,” Mazel said. “It definitely presented some challenges.”

Mazel said the suspects backpacked the drones into the area in anticipation of the FBI’s arrival. He added that the suspects surveilled the hostage team and kept an eye on the agents, feeding video to the group’s other members via YouTube.

“They had people fly their own drones up and put the footage to YouTube so that the guys who had cellular access could go to the YouTube site and pull down the video,” Mazel said.

The incident remains “law enforcement-sensitive,” Mazel said Wednesday, declining to say just where or when it took place. But it shows how criminal groups are using small drones for increasingly elaborate crimes.

The incident is the latest case of counter surveillance of law enforcement, which Mazel said is the fastest-growing way organized criminals are using drones. He said some criminal organizations are using the devices as part of witness intimidation schemes.

Mazel added that criminals will surveil police departments and precincts to see “who is going in and out of the facility and who might be cooperating with police.”

In Australia, criminal gangs have monitored port authority workers and called a false alarm to draw off security forces if the workers get close to a shipping container that contains illegal substances or contraband.

Andrew Scharnweber, associate chief of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said criminal networks are using drones to watch Border Patrol agents to identify their gaps in coverage and exploit them. Scharnweber also said that cartels are able to move small amounts of high-value narcotics across the border via drones with “little or no fear of arrest.”

Officials have introduced some ways to counter the criminal use of drones. The U.S. military has effectively used drone-jamming equipment in Syria and Iraq. But those types of solutions have not been tested in American cities and may interfere with cell phone signals and possibly the avionics of other aircrafts.

The recent version of the FAA authorization bill contains two amendments that may help stop the criminal use of drones. One would make it illegal to “weaponize” consumer drones, while the other would require drones that fly beyond their operators’ line of sight to broadcast an identity. This would allow law enforcement to track and connect them to a real person.

Counter surveillance of law enforcement is becoming the fastest-growing way organized criminals are using drones.

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