back to article UK prison reform report wants hard-coded no-fly zones in drones to keep them out of jail

The UK's Ministry of Justice has revealed it is trying to have drone-makers hard code prison locations into their products, to ensure jails become no-fly zones. A new report on Prison Safety and Reform (PDF) says “Over the past year there has also been a sharp rise in the number of drones used to fly and drop contraband over …

  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Well,

    in nearly all quadcopters you can disable GPS so that deals with that problem and as for phones, just get the lags to factory reset em, fuck me, are the powers that be SO stupid!?!?!?

    1. This post has been deleted by its author

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Well,

        Isn't the usual drone target someone outside on the rec yard or such, not a specific window?

      2. AndyS

        Re: Well,

        > Flying a drone into a prison with GPS disabled is quite a palaver, and should reduce some of the currently trivially-easy resupply flights.

        I think you've completely missed the point. GPS fencing can be turned off, without disabling GPS.

        Also, many quadcopters are available without fencing of any sort, and even then it's pretty trivial to roll your own using components for a few hundred quid with full control over the firmware.

        Finally, the situation you're describing is nonsense - if they actually wanted to hit a window (which they don't - they drop in pre-arranged areas), they would simply fit an FPV camera, which they presumably have anyway. It costs <£100 to get a camera, transmitter, receiver and goggles, then you get your man to flash a torch to show you where to go, and you go there.

        TLDR I don't think you're very familiar with the subject!

      3. BillG Silver badge
        Facepalm

        Re: Well,

        "How about jamming all mobile phone signals in the prison except for some guard areas?" asks Captain Obvious.

        1. Wilseus

          Re: Well,

          "How about jamming all mobile phone signals in the prison except for some guard areas?" asks Captain Obvious.

          The guard areas are a moot point because it's a criminal offence for anyone to take a mobile phone into any part of a prison.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Well,

            Rather than jam, which has unintended consequences, just deploy a Stingray. Then the authorities can listen to what the lags are saying, know whether they're plotting more crime, or if its a social call they'll immediately know who it is and therefore which cell to turn upside down.

      4. Cynic_999 Silver badge

        Re: Well,

        A GPS is not nearly accurate enough to fly a drone to a particular window, and it's not how it is done anyway. Apart from anything else, cells do not have to have openable windows, and many do not.

        IIUC, the drone pilot uses FPV (I.R. camera and video transmitter on the drone, screen or goggles on the operator) and is flown visually to the target. The drone then typically drops the contraband in a hidden location that prisoners will have access to the following day.

        But I'm quite happy to allow the people who do not understand a thing about the technology come up with an expensive but completely ineffective "solution" to the problem.

    2. DrXym Silver badge

      Re: Well,

      Signal jamming would deal with manually flown drones. I assume prisons already do it for phones and it wouldn't be a stretch to do it for the frequencies that drones fly with.

      Secondly, just because one security measure in isolation can't account for every single exploit doesn't render it worthless. I lock my doors and windows at night even though a determined burglar could smash the door down with a sledgehammer. Does that mean locking my doors and windows is a useless security measure?

    3. Mad Chaz
      Black Helicopters

      Re: Well,

      "are the powers that be SO stupid!?!?!?"

      Do you really need to ask?

  2. hplasm Silver badge
    Meh

    are the powers that be SO stupid!?!?!?

    Yes.

    1. Harry the Bastard

      Re: are the powers that be SO stupid!?!?!?

      actually they are even more stupid

      1. Will Godfrey Silver badge
        Facepalm

        Re: are the powers that be SO stupid!?!?!?

        Several upvotes here - I have no idea of the prison environment but these points were the first that occurred to me.

        Situation normal - authorities totally out of touch with reality.

  3. Pascal Monett Silver badge

    "hard-coded no-fly zones in drones"

    Right, because criminals will immediately cease to try and get their drones into the prison anyway because of such a strong obstacle. Sure.

    It's not like criminals have any IT-capable people available to, oh I don't know, replace the chip containing the zones ? Hack into the drone's innards and erase said zones ? Create an entire new OS that simply disregards that information ?

    I really don't see that this is in any actually useful. The only people it will hinder are the honest ones that, by definition, should have no interest in flying their drone over a prison anyway.

    I have a better idea : give a shotgun to one of the wardens and appoint him Aerial Defense Officer. Let him have a bit of fun and improve his marksmanship at the same time. Let's see the crims circumvent that.

    1. AndyS

      Re: "hard-coded no-fly zones in drones"

      > replace the chip containing the zones ? Hack into the drone's innards and erase said zones ? Create an entire new OS that simply disregards that information ?

      None of this is necessary. You'll note the article said the majority of drones on the market. So, let's say 80% of new drones from next year (including all from DJI) won't fly over prisons.

      Guess what? The other 20% of off-the-shelf drones don't have geofencing. And neither do any of the DIY built ones.

      1. PNGuinn
        FAIL

        Re: "hard-coded no-fly zones in drones"

        So what if - perish the thought - someone with a criminal mind - (that's all of us now, of course) and a level of intelligence marginally higher than that of the sum of the government's squared (that's all of us cubed at least I suspect) decides to obtain a small autonomous flying device from outside the uk and dare to try to use it to circumvent the new rules?

        No - they wouldn't DARE - it'd be illegal.

        1. Jack of Shadows Silver badge
          WTF?

          Re: "hard-coded no-fly zones in drones"

          While squaring a negative does result in a positive, cubing a negative results in a far larger negative. Which does the public a disservice, I think.

          US elections. Wait, what? Upon further reflection, you're right. Do carry on.

          1. Jeffrey Nonken Silver badge

            Re: "hard-coded no-fly zones in drones"

            "While squaring a negative does result in a positive, cubing a negative results in a far larger negative."

            Unless it's a negative 1. Or between 0 and -1.

    2. Steve K Silver badge

      Re: "hard-coded no-fly zones in drones"

      Even better idea - get the wardens their own drones and have a dogfight....

      Stream it on YouTube and the proceeds go to the Warden's Christmas party/tea & biscuits fund as an incentive.

      (On a more serious note, I imagine that the drones come in at night in order to circumvent simple visual tracking...)

      1. Dabooka Silver badge

        Re: "hard-coded no-fly zones in drones"

        re: Warden's Christmas party

        I think you've just described the 'plot' of this blockbuster

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Black Helicopters

      @Pascal

      "I really don't see that this is in any actually useful. The only people it will hinder are the honest ones that, by definition, should have no interest in flying their drone over a prison anyway."

      Or worse... Imagine a riot starting and a prison getting taken over. Just to ensure the current situation and to determine who does what they set out a drone and... uh, oh.... This could go wrong on so many levels.

      My main problem with this though is that governments apparently don't want to bother upholding their own rules anymore. If you do the crime then get 'm to do their time, but this is just taking the cheap way out. And it also raises the question what could be next on their "no-go list"?

    4. DrXym Silver badge

      Re: "hard-coded no-fly zones in drones"

      "Right, because criminals will immediately cease to try and get their drones into the prison anyway because of such a strong obstacle. Sure."

      No single security measure is meant to protect against all threats so its a nonsense to characterize it as such.

      1. PNGuinn
        Joke

        Re: "hard-coded no-fly zones in drones"

        "Right, because criminals will immediately cease to try and get their drones into the prison anyway because of such a strong obstacle. Sure."

        No, my good doctor, you don't understand.

        Law abiding criminals would never do such a thing - 'cos it'd be against the Law, you see.

        Gubbermint - if you're reading this see icon - you're a laughing stock.

    5. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Re: "hard-coded no-fly zones in drones"

      "I have a better idea : give a shotgun to one of the wardens and appoint him Aerial Defense Officer. Let him have a bit of fun and improve his marksmanship at the same time. Let's see the crims circumvent that."

      Might be a bit of an issue in the urban based prisons. Not sure I'd be happy at having lead shot or whatever dropping down on my car as I drive past.

  4. John Sager

    No-name drones from China?

    I don't think HMG has that kind of clout in the PRC. Having said that, I remember, oh, 20 years or so ago, the US Treasury suggesting that printer manufacturers should install anti-counterfeiting software. It seemed to me at the time a stupid thing to ask - greenbacks should have had better anti-forgery features anyway. Now we find that quite a few printers will barf on printing a banknote, and not just of the USD variety.

    1. AndyS

      Re: No-name drones from China?

      There's actually a really interesting thing going on here, called the Eurion constellation. Printers / scanners etc don't recognise the whole note, just that one pattern, and a very large number of currency notes include it in a repetitive background image. So, it was fairly easy to get all major manufacturers to include a simple search algorithm to include it.

      As you say, cheap unbranded kit no doubt does not include controls, which will be the same with drones. But with printer's it's been successful as, to print decent forgeries, you need a good printer. To lob drugs into a prison you don't need the latest top-of-the-market off-the-shelf drone - any old Chinese import will do the job, or roll your own.

      1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        Re: No-name drones from China?

        It's not just prisons. Drones should be hardcoded not to fly into military bases or over the homes of politicians. We just need to send the Chinese government a list of the coordinates of all military and secret installations, all government offices and the homes and country seats of all politicians.

        1. PNGuinn
          Go

          Re: No-name drones from China?

          We just need to send the Chinese government a list of the coordinates and leak the list to ... W*^%&($£_S? ....

  5. ZanzibarRastapopulous

    The drone ban.

    The scope for criminality is just massive with these things, is it inevitable that they will be banned?

    1. AndyS

      Re: The drone ban.

      > The scope for criminality is just massive with these things, is it inevitable that they will be banned?

      No.

      See also: Cars, houses, metal bars, fire, sharp rocks, etc.

      1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        Re: The drone ban.

        But if we outlaw rocks then only outlaws will have rocks.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: The drone ban.

        See also: Cars, houses, metal bars, fire, sharp rocks, etc.

        But......

        But.....

        You missed "The Internet". Source of All That Is Evil according to the redtops (after ISIS, obvs)

        It Must Be Banned.

        1. ZanzibarRastapopulous

          Re: The drone ban.

          Well, the obvious "but" is that all those things have a use beyond recreation and houses at least can't be used to get a couple of kgs of explosive to an aeroplane.

          Honestly you lot are right muppets if you don't see this one coming.

          1. allthecoolshortnamesweretaken Silver badge

            Re: The drone ban.

            Oh.

            Can I be Kermit, then?

  6. Len Goddard

    GPS

    My el-cheapo no-name drone delivered to my direct from China doesn't even have GPS. It would have just about the lifting power to take a small phone or bag of marching powder over the wall, though, if only I were a good enough pilot to stop it from zooming under the sofa and refusing to come out.

    1. Haku
      Thumb Up

      Re: GPS

      With enough determination and practice even you might be able to pull this stunt off with what looks like a Syma X5C-1:

      lightbulb (YouTube, 44 seconds)

    2. Mad Chaz

      Re: GPS

      Are you sure it's a drone and not a cat?

  7. Steve Davies 3 Silver badge

    time to put prisons into bubbles

    or at least cover over the bits where the crims can go or open windows.

    Put a rain shield over the outside exercise area leaving the sides (which are fenced) open.

    OR employ signal jamming on phones and drones.

    Finally, I'm sure that BAE Systems could design an interceptor for a few billion.

    Failing that build the next generation of lag hotels underground. I hear there are a good few redundant coal mines up for sale.

    If all they can come up with it to ask nicely for the GPS's to stop them overflying then they can't really be serious about stopping the flow of drugs, phones and even guns into prisons.

    1. AndyS

      Re: time to put prisons into bubbles

      > or at least cover over the bits where the crims can go or open windows.

      > Put a rain shield over the outside exercise area leaving the sides (which are fenced) open.

      A large net seems to be a sensible solution - still allow open air access (which is essential to health & wealfare, and hence the core aim of a prison) without letting packages be dropped in. Might be an eyesore but it would probably solve this problem completely.

      > OR employ signal jamming on phones and drones.

      > Finally, I'm sure that BAE Systems could design an interceptor for a few billion.

      Actually harder than it sounds. I've got a drone which cost <£1000, it has no geofencing, it runs open source hardware and software, and it can run fully autonomous flight plans with no radio communication except a GPS receiver, can lift around 1kg and fly around 5 km without issue. Set it up in Google Maps, turn off all radios, and away it goes. I suppose a GPS jammer would confuse it, but I can't see the use of them in urban environments going down very well.

      > Failing that build the next generation of lag hotels underground. I hear there are a good few redundant coal mines up for sale.

      Why not Mars?

      > If all they can come up with it to ask nicely for the GPS's to stop them overflying then they can't really be serious about stopping the flow of drugs, phones and even guns into prisons.

      I think this is the real thing. Phones in prisons - genuinely, why not? Payphones cost several pounds per minute to use, meaning people without access to a mobile are pretty much cut off from their loved ones and their home life. Even for minor crimes, this leads to pretty horrendous outcomes and lack of rehabilitation. So, it seems like mobiles for non nefarious uses are sort of tolerated. The solution would be phones in cells, on which the lines can be monitored, for which the cost of use to the prisoner is reasonable.

      Drugs? Again, so long as they are not promoting further crime inside, there has been a defacto tolerance of their existence in prisons. There is less of a clear cut reason why this should be the case, but there hasn't been any serious attempt to stamp them out.

    2. yosemite

      Re: time to put prisons into bubbles

      Can't think why this simple low tech solution hasn't been more discussed. It seems blindingly obvious to me that slinging a large net between the prison roof and the outside walls would solve the drone problem easily. And better still if the mesh was ferrous then wouldn't this act as a faraday cage and block mobile phone signals too?

    3. Ian 55
      Childcatcher

      Re: time to put prisons into bubbles

      "I hear there are a good few redundant coal mines up for sale."

      Plenty of Australia remains available too.

      Or we could just hang people and fund the justice system from the sale of the TV rights.

      1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        Re: time to put prisons into bubbles

        But importing lots of non-native crims to Australia will endanger the indigenous crims.

        Many of Australia's criminals have unique adaptations to the environment, such as becoming PM, which would be lost if you let in standard common-or-garden criminals

  8. Haku
    Facepalm

    Hard coded no-fly zones? Yeah good luck with that!

    Especially when open source multirotor flight controllers are so prolifically available to buy as stand alone purchases and in ready-to-fly multirotors from vendors across the globe.

  9. moiety

    So you'd just use accelerometers etc. to get a relative position from the starting point. Or use a visual targeting system with the camera. GPS is useful but is isn't even close to the only way of getting a drone to a particular area.

  10. inmypjs Silver badge

    "hard-coded no-fly zones in drones"

    Pretty typical attitude nowadays.

    "Our job is so difficult, how much easier it is to compel others to do it for us".

    Not really sure what the problem with prisoners having phones is anyway.

    1. Rich 11 Silver badge

      Re: "hard-coded no-fly zones in drones"

      Not really sure what the problem with prisoners having phones is anyway.

      They might use them to order takeaways via Deliveroo. Eventually the guards will get so fat they won't be able to catch any escaping prisoners.

    2. W4YBO

      Re: "hard-coded no-fly zones in drones"

      "Not really sure what the problem with prisoners having phones is anyway."

      I don't think I want Whitey Bulger (or any other crime syndicate/gang member) having access to an unmonitored line.

    3. Adam 52 Silver badge

      Re: "hard-coded no-fly zones in drones"

      "Not really sure what the problem with prisoners having phones is anyway"

      You can't see any problem with a prisoner having a device that lets them organise their escape, the intimidation of witnesses or for evidence to disappear?

      1. TheSkunkyMonk

        Re: "hard-coded no-fly zones in drones"

        is that not what parliamentary privilege is for?

  11. pauleverett

    might as well not bother. All it does is make things more expensive for everyone. Anyone that is intent on flying a drone in a NFZ will easily find a workaround. Its a complete waste of a lot of time and energy, and I believe the motives have nothing to do with prisons, and once the mechanism is in place, will pretty soon expand to any old crap that plod fancies locking drones out of.

  12. The_Idiot

    And as well as all...

    ... the other reasons mentioned here why this is as dumb as it really is - what happens when/ if a new 'place drones aren't allowed to go' is built or torn down? A place not on the extant 'hard coded' list of Bad Places(tm)? World wide recall of all drones, by authority of HMG (which doesn't have any. mostly) to jave the list updated?

    Sigh.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: And as well as all...

      Well, exactly. The first thing that went through my mind too.

  13. Adam Foxton

    Why?

    Just install a bunch of cameras with motion trackers to see what's happening from the top the of the walls up. Any motion across the wall is either illicit or a bird.

    The drone isn't even the issue, it's the items being delivered that are the problem. So you don't even need to stop the drone, or prevent a throw-over- you just need to have a system look to see if anything breaks the perimeter and if the intruder falls to the ground or leaves anything. If it just overflies the prison without doing anything then it's not an immediate issue (and could be halted with a directional jammer / net gun / interceptor drone). You can then identify where the payload landed and identify / collect / isolate it.

    This way there's no reliance on criminals not circumventing geofencing attempts, and it covers throw-overs too. Occasionally you'll get a false positive from a seagull dropping a pizza.

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    RE: Why not Mars?

    Too far, lots of abandoned mines though.

  15. disgustedoftunbridgewells Silver badge

    With phones, I wonder why they don't collect the IMSI's and monitor the calls. Could collar a few more crims that way.

    If they just confiscate the phones, they aren't catching the people on the outside conspiring to smuggle contraband in.

  16. JaitcH
    FAIL

    Prison Reform from Cloud Cuckoo Land

    I guess these airheads have never heard of hacking.

    Several drones have "hard coded" geo-fencing. Unfortunately, there are details on the InterNet as to how to remove these irritants.

    Banned - the governmental favourite response.

    1. Ken Hagan Gold badge

      Re: Prison Reform from Cloud Cuckoo Land

      "Banned - the governmental favourite response."

      That's because banning is relatively cheap way of getting the issue off the front page. If you would prefer a different response, you need to change the way that the performance of the government is measured by Joe Public.

  17. PacketPusher
    Megaphone

    Slippery slope

    Even if this works, then what about air ports. Maybe we should add sensitive government buildings like the White House and the Kremlin. There are military bases. GitMo? Maybe that gulag in Siberia. Schools. Parks.

    1. Ken Hagan Gold badge

      Re: Slippery slope

      In the UK (and I imagine you can say something similar for most countries) you can add "within 50 metres of any building that you don't own" to this list of yours. It would probably use less ROM space in the drone firmware to use a whitelist.

  18. DougS Silver badge

    Surely there are better solutions

    How about requiring them to recognize transmission on a certain frequency meaning no fly zone? Then it is useful for airports, military bases etc.

    Or put netting above the yard to catch whatever they drop?

  19. This post has been deleted by its author

  20. sean.fr

    Blocking phones in a zone is easy enough

    You not need to block all phones to block phones inside a zone.

    Detecting is easy enough. To work they need to talk to a base station. By comparing the handshaking timing at as observed at three or four antennas, and you have a location. There is timing info in the protocol GSM which makes it easy. Then you de-register phones that are in the forbidden zone. Better, you just record. Actually you want prisonners to keep contact with the outside world as prisons with good family contacts re-offend less. So you allow the phones, on condition they are declared and they are aware they will be recorded.

  21. Raphael

    punt gun

    Surely the simplest option is for the guards to blow the thing out the sky with a punt gun?

    1. Suricou Raven

      Re: punt gun

      Prisons are often in populated areas. Not so much because they are built there, but because the populated area grew to encompass the prison.

      I still favor the other low-tech solution: Put up a net over the yard. And if phones remain a problem, several companies make conductive paint that can be used for radio screening.

      1. sean.fr

        Blocking drones easier than blocking phones

        Drones use a limited number of well known frequencies for control. They often use 2.4Ghz and 5.8Ghz frequencies also used for home WiFi. But the protocol are very differently coded. The comms is often frequency hopping but it only intended to block accidental interference, not active jamming. You can monitor the signal, allow for any WiF and microwave ovens you are expecting, and send the police to investigate the source of anything else. Jammesr4u sell commercial drone jammers for a few hundred dollars If you jam using directional aerials pointing to the sky, you can avoid degrading the local wifi. In any case you only jam after you have detected the rogue signal.

  22. MangyDog

    As some one whos seen what its like on the inside i feel I must put my two pennies worth into this debate...

    Simply that they really dont have a clue what theyre talking about and are just pulling out ideas from there arse to look like theyre actually tackling the issue...

    Now lets get the technical stuff out the way shall we, drones are remote controlled quad copters... Like any other RC some one is controlling them via a remote control, like cars or planes... You cant stop that.

    The GPS controlled drones as many have said, the GPS assist can be turned off and still flied manually... And I highly doubt that anyone is flying contraband into prison via GPS anyway because the pilot would need to know the exact GPS possession and elevation to the said window of the person theyre flying the stuff to, and if your outside the prison thats near on impossible even if you know the cell number and even the window location by sight. So it has to be manually flown there.

    People talk about jamming. Well theres a few problems with that to. One Jamming is illegal, the prison service has looked into Cell phone jamming and found a few technical issues as well as the law itsself. It is illegal to jam signals, only a very few authorities have the power to jam and only in a few limited circumstances, such as a terrorist attack.

    The other issue with Jamming is, the prison tvs would stop working. I know many of you would think "Those scum dont deserve TV, What is prison a holiday camp?" Well if you been inside youll quickly learn how valuable the tv is. For your own mental health more than anything. Suicide and self harm is rife in prison, removing the TV would simply make it a whole lot worse.

    Besides jamming also made the prison offers radios stop working too... So simply on a technical front, its not possible.

    So what is the answer? Well I'm not so sure. Perhaps better staffing, more money put into the prison service to provide a better environment for prisoners and staff. Less over crowding to make a safer less hostile place. More money for better quality food (trust me prison food is bad, people have died from malnutrition from prison food) But what do you expect when the daily budget per head is only £1.10p.

    Higher quality staffing, there are plenty of corrupt officers, as well as officers who are in the job for all the wrong reasons. Power trippers and bullies.. Dont get me wrong there are also many decent officers too, but I've found they are fewer than the majority. less corruption and better building security... If you ever get the misfortune to go to a victorian prison, youll quickly descover that if you even have a unbroken window in your sell, theyre not secure enough to stop things being passed in or swung between sells.

    Quite frankly... Take the Scandinavian model of prisons, where they treat people with respect and decency and teach real life values and give people real opportunities instead of just finding a place to warehouse and forget about, and youll have far less reoffending, far less deaths, far less abuse, Things would just be better.

    Just remember not everyone in prison is a lost cause, and some people are actualy rather nice and normal. While most have done something wrong to varying degrees, most people genuinely feel they made a mistake and want to be a better person. Dont get me wrong though. There are some bad eggs too. Such is the human condition.

  23. Anonymous Noel Coward
    Boffin

    What about, I don't know, setting up netting over open areas of the prison?

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