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Remote-Control Recruitment by Sexual Predators

@Tony_Hallett, CEO, Unmanned Response

Sexual predators are early adopters of technology. They embraced the Internet, which dramatically enhances their ability to engage and groom victims. Remote-control planes, copters, cars, trains, and boats (which are collectively referred to as “R/Cs” in this paper) also fit perfectly into their methodology.

  • Engage and Recruit: R/Cs are kid magnets. Predators can take one of these to a local park and will find plenty of children who are eager to engage.
  • Groom: Predators will quickly establish a common bond with children, spurred by “shared” fascination and interaction with the R/C.
  • Gifts: Predators will solidify their relationships by giving victims their own R/C to take home, show parents and friends, and prominently display in their bedroom.

Sexual predators are charmingly manipulative. “Do you like remote-control toys?” (bait) “Have you asked your parents to get you one?” (probe to determine if its a single-parent home) “Why won’t your parents get you one?” (emotionally isolate the child) “Would you like to operate the controls?” (offers excitement; exhibits trust in the child) “Don’t worry, its not hard to operate and I’ll help you.” (supportive; sets stage for physical contact) “Look at how good you’re doing!” (positive reinforcement)

A predator may position himself to “help” with the controls, providing the opportunity to experiment with (seemingly) nonsexual contact while the child’s focus is on the R/C. (For frotteurs, the contact is a sexual experience.) A predator with extra R/C batteries can continue this cycle of engagement, grooming, and contact for hours, exploring and exploiting the vulnerabilities of several potential victims and parents.

R/Cs will also appeal to stalkers and sexual voyeurs. Their powerful audiovisual “capture and transmit” capabilities enable R/Cs to be hidden near a park, playground, public swimming pool, bar, school, or workplace, allowing operators to observe and even follow unsuspecting targets.

R/Cs of all types and sizes are potentially high-tech Trojan horses. A predator can remotely activate on-board electronic devices to gain audio and video access from the R/C, even if it is located inside a target’s home. A tech-savvy predator can tap into a local wireless network and browse through files, email accounts, and chat sessions.

Acquiring an R/C is easy. Thousands of personal drones are sold each month and that number is rapidly expanding. A good R/C quad copter with a high resolution video camera costs about five hundred dollars, although models are available in all price ranges. Some companies offer conversion kits they claim will “turn anything into a drone.”

If an incident is reported to police, will officers realize that an R/C may be sending a live audio/video feed to a perpetrator? If an R/C is stalking a victim or a neighborhood, will the police conduct a stakeout and pursue the offending drone with their own R/C police copter?

The answer to both questions is “probably not.” Most law enforcement officers are not aware of the threats and capabilities of R/Cs. Less than 25 of America’s 18,000 state and local police departments have been granted permission by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to operate unmanned aerial systems. Until there is broad integration of unmanned systems into public safety operations, police officers will not have the familiarity or capability to effectively address this growing threat.

Consider this: If a police department wants to operate an R/C, it must first do the following:

  • Employ at least two operators (pilot and observer) who pass a training program approved by the FAA and pass an FAA second-class medical exam
  • Demonstrate operator proficiency on their specific R/C model
  • Apply for and obtain permission from the FAA (a Certificate of Authorization, or COA) to fly their specific R/C model – a two-month process at best
  • The COA restricts flight operations to a pre-defined area
  • The COA restricts flights to only daylight hours unless the operator has an FAA pilot’s license and instrument rating
  • Maintain meticulous logs of all flight activities

In contrast, if a sexual predator, even a registered sex offender (or anyone else for that matter), wants to operate an R/C for “recreational purposes” they must first do the following:

  • Nothing

No registration, no training, no tests, no approvals, no reports. Just buy and fly, day or night.

Same remote-control plane or copter. Two very different standards.

The regulatory complexities are not the only issues that discourage police departments from researching and deploying R/Cs. Wails of protests from privacy advocates and reactionary politicians have unfairly portrayed law enforcement professionals as everything from peeping toms to architects of a police-state. Why would a police chief invite public scorn, fight for a new line-item in the budget, navigate the regulatory compliance process, and place the R/C into service, only to watch helplessly as overzealous lawmakers outlaw the use of unmanned aerial systems by police departments?

Eventually, these and other challenges will be overcome. Until then, it appears likely that sexual predators, stalkers, and voyeurs will creep into the lives of unsuspecting victims using remote-control technologies while police departments are (as usual) handcuffed by politics, bureaucracy, and ever-changing rules.

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