How drones are being weaponized and used to stalk and harass people
It's an unfortunate fact that technology isn't inherently good, but rather just a tool that can be used to enable good or bad intentions. Drones can be used to help first responders survey an area and better address people in need of immediate assistance. Or drones can be weaponized and used by a vindictive ex-partner who wants to do harm to their former love interest, which is what happened when a Pennsylvania man allegedly used a drone to air-lift explosives onto his ex-girlfriend's property.
According to Leigh Valley Live, 44-year-old Jason Muzzicato was in possession of a DJI Phantom 3 drone that hadn't been registered with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). During his arraignment earlier this week, where he was charged with crimes related to possession of the firearms and explosives, Assistant U.S. Attorney John Gallagher alleged that Muzzicato used the drone to drop explosive devices on his ex-girlfriend's house, according to Pennsylvania newspaper the Morning Call. Muzzicato's attorney denied the charge and said that there hasn't been any "conclusive evidence" to suggest his client attempted to bomb his former partner's home.
The court will decide if Muzzicato was behind the alleged bombings, but he was certainly equipped for them. An FBI search of his home and automotive business discovered 10 guns, including multiple semi-automatic pistols and AR-15 rifles. The agency also found seven handmade explosives in his possession, according to Lehigh Valley Live. He should not have been in possession of any of the gun, as he had a domestic violence protective order filed against him in 2017 that makes it illegal for him to own firearms.
Muzzicato is also accused of being responsible for a number of explosions that have happened within his neighborhood since March. While the explosions have not resulted in any damage or injuries, they have disrupted the community. One neighbor claimed that he saw the autoworker use the drone to drop nails from the sky, according to news station WTAP. Muzzicato also allegedly equipped his car with dashboard switches that, when flipped, would release objects like ball bearings, nails and paint thinner that could be used to damage other cars.
For what it's worth, flying a weaponized drone is illegal. In 2018, the FAA instituted a steep $25,000 fine for anyone caught operating a drone equipped with any weapon that could be "used for, or is readily capable of, causing death or serious bodily injury." Of course, that hasn't stopped people from strapping all sorts of different things to their drones. In 2015, a video went viral that showed a drone with a handgun attached to it firing shots into the woods. Later that year, another viral video surfaced of a drone with an active and functioning flamethrower attached to it. While those drones weren't used to do any damage to people or property, it's not hard to see how they could be used for that purpose — especially if put in the hands of someone with a violent past and a whole fleet of weapons at his disposal.
Muzzicato is not the first to allegedly use a drone to terrorize a former partner. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation documented a number of cases in which people have used drones to spy on and harass former significant others. In one instance, a woman's ex-husband allegedly used a drone to disrupt a New Year's Eve barbecue that she was hosting at her home. The victim of the stalking said the idea that she and her children were being watched and followed at all time made them feel like prisoners while her ex-husband is "free to roam."
In 2017, Vice documented a series of reports made by women living in rural Australia who claimed they were being stalked by drones. The victims of the attacks said that the drones would fly above their homes, sometimes peeping into windows. Those who experienced that invasive behavior said they stopped showering at night out of a fear of being filmed. "A big part of what makes drones so transformative is that they allow you to put cameras in areas that would be very difficult or dangerous to reach by traditional means," Arthur Holland Michel, the co-director of Bard College's Center for The Study of The Drone, told Vice. "Unfortunately, it comes as no surprise that the technology would be popular with stalkers."
This type of behavior is sadly not uncommon. A report published by the the Congressional Research Service suggested that these types of misuses of the technology would likely only increase as tools like drones become more accessible. “Traditional crimes such as stalking, harassment, voyeurism, and wiretapping may all be committed through the operation of a drone,” the report stated. Unfortunately, there still isn't much recourse for victims of these types of crimes. There have been attempts to make drones easier to track and link to an individual so that abuse and unapproved actions can be tied to the drone's owner. Unfortunately, in the case of Muzzicato, the drone allegedly used to drop explosives was not registered with the FAA. The rules on when and how people are allowed to operate drones, including flying over or around other people's property, remain somewhat vague and difficult to enforce, as well.
Organizations like Safe Horizon and the Electronic Privacy Information Center have resources for victims of harassment, abuse and stalking, including technology-driven forms. While they do not have resources specific to dealing with drones, organizations like these are likely to have resources or can point victims in the right direction to get the help they need in dealing with these types of invasive and terrifying behaviors.