If you were organizing a riot, wouldn’t youRobot police with weapons may roam the streets of China, but cybersecurity experts say the bots could become targets for hackers. You’re watching a protest, a mass of demonstrators demanding political change, and suddenly, things get violent. In come the robocops, like giant bowling pins on wheels, armed with cameras, mechanical clamps that can grab and hold, and electric zappers to subdue the unruly. These roving robot officers could become reality in China. Researchers at the country’s National University of Defense Technology showed off the prototype at an expo in April, saying their five-foot, 170-pound “AnBot” will patrol places like airports, schools, banks, hotels, and government and military facilities, reaching speeds of up to 11 miles per hour, according to CNBC. Humans would use remote control to activate the AnBot’s “electrically charged riot control tool,“ reported ABC News in Australia. Some human rights activists worry that the government could abuse people with this autonomous riot officer, incapable of feeling pain or fear. But there is another concern—will police be able to stop other humans from hijacking the robot posse for their own use? “The robots will be pretty exciting targets for hackers,” said Jim Feely with Archer Security Group.

Unarmed robocops

The AnBot would not be the first automated officer sworn into service. Robo-guards patrol prisons in South Korea, and security robots on wheels monitor places in California. But they are not armed, according to news reports. In fact, the “K5” security robots in the Silicon Valley will stop and re-route if someone gets in their way, and will only set off a loud chirp like a car alarm if attacked, reported KPIX in San Francisco. The South Korean robo-guard creators are trying to find ways to make their charges look more friendly to prisoners, reported CNET. “That’s a concern. But the robots are not Terminators. Their job is not cracking down on violent prisoners. They are helpers. When an inmate is in a life-threatening situation or seriously ill, he or she can reach out for help quickly,” said Lee Baik-Chul of Kyonggi University.

Armed robocops

The robo-weapon, however, adds a new element. The Chinese news site People’s Daily online said the armed AnBot would “play an important role in anti-terrorism and anti-riot operations,” according to ABC News. That could put the robots in the spotlight, and catch the attention of activists and political hackers.  “If they are used in counter-demonstration actions, I think that the probability of someone trying to hack them would be fairly high,” said Patrick Coyle with Chemical Facility Security News. “If you were organizing a riot, wouldn’t you like to be able to turn the robots on the police?” said Feely. anbot police bot 7361596-3x2-700x467 Hacking strategies

In the movie “RoboCop,” the part-human, part-robot hero can’t do away with a villain colleague because his robot directive prevents him from killing anyone who works for the organization. The movie hack—the boss fires the villain co-worker so that RoboCop can destroy him. Real-life hacks of robot officers could take many forms, according to cybersecurity experts. The simplest could be physical, said Coyle, as people try to take advantage of the rolling robot’s lack of agility. “Tagging as a means of protest would reach new heights as spray cans would be aimed at the cameras of the AnBot,” he said. “Placing physical mobility traps would quickly become the new game for street cred for urban kids in areas where respect for police is low or non-existent.” But he said hackers could use remote means as well—GPS spoofing, where attackers broadcast fake GPS signals, and communications blocking, where attackers send their own radio or wireless signals, could allow the hackers to take over the bots.

Drones as canaries

You may have already seen law enforcement robots in action—in the skies. Drones record video and hunt for suspects, among other tasks. Hackers have already shown they can seize control of police drones. In March, a security researcher said he found a way to hijack a drone used by police departments by intercepting its Wi-Fi connection and sending his own commands, reported NBC News. And in 2012, a professor and students at the University of Texas showed that hackers could spoof GPS signals and take over a drone.  In 2011, Iran claimed it hacked an American military drone and tricked it into landing in Iranian territory, reported the Christian Science Monitor. “Terrorists and college kids already have hacked into government drones,” wrote Marc Goodman, founder of the Future Crimes Institute, in Defense One. It’s time to rethink security with the rise of robotics.”

Dr. Robot 

Surgeons use robots to operate on patients from afar. Currently, the robots use private communication channels, but future robot doctors may use publicly available networks in war zones, remote areas, or scenes of disaster, researchers at the University of Washington said. They tested these next generation tele-surgeons and found that they could hack them, hijack the surgery, and even shut them down, according to an information release last year. One of their strategies—”man in the middle” attacks, where the attacker allows both sides to believe they are communicating securely, but is secretly changing the information sent back and forth. In this case, the robots were not performing real surgery, but instead moving wooden blocks with their arms. “Due to the open and uncontrollable nature of communication networks, it becomes easy for malicious entities to jam, disrupt, or take over the communication between a robot and a surgeon,” researchers said, according to the MIT Technology Review The University of Washington researchers are focusing on how to make these kinds of machines more secure. “In an ideal world, you’d always have a private network and everything could be controlled, but that’s not always going to be the case,” said Howard Chizeck, one of the directors of the University of Washington BioRobotics Lab. “We need to design for and test additional security measures now, before the next generation of telerobots are deployed.”

Securing the security bot

Will law enforcement agencies be able to make the AnBot “bullet-proof” against cyber attacks? “It could be locked down quite well,” said Feely. “Some governments and businesses safely send very sensitive data over the Internet with the help of highly controlled encryption and security measures today. I think with enough time and money dedicated to securing the robots and command and control, they could be pretty hard to compromise.” “However, it’s hard to say how much emphasis is being put on securing them,” he added. “China’s National Defense University probably isn’t going to share their security practices with the public.” If China declares its armed police robots as “completely cybersafe,” that could make the problem worse, according to Coyle. “A claim that anything is unhackable is a broad invitation to a large number of hackers to take a try at it,” said Coyle. “In that event, I would not be surprised to hear that a number of these devices were electronically isolated and turned up missing. The best way to try to hack one would be to own one.”

“It was the machines, Sarah”

Human rights advocates expressed concern that China could use the AnBot to target certain groups under the guise of “anti-riot” or “anti-terrorism,” reported CNBC. Real officers might hesitate to carry out these kinds of orders. “Continued political interference in China’s law enforcement bodies leads to the real worry that these robots could quickly become an Orwellian surveillance tool deployed against the population,” said Frances Eve at the non-governmental organization China Human Rights Defenders. Others connected the AnBots to the movie “The Terminator,” where H-K—hunter-killer—patrol machines round up humans and put them in camps for “orderly disposal,” and only a hero named John Connor can save people from complete machine takeover. “The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” said Dave Lewis with Liquidmatrix Security Digest. “If the cautionary tale of John Connor has taught us anything, it is that the law of unintended consequences can cause all manner of problems.” A bug in a real robot with a weapon could have serious consequences, according to Lewis. “Kidding aside,” said Lewis, “How can we be sure that robots such as these have been put through their paces with a proper code review? It would not bode well for the manufacturer if one of the robots went on a rampage.”

Officer Friendly

Some of the K5 patrol bots in California have been greeted with open arms—literally. “The vast majority of people see it and go, ‘Oh, my God, that’s so cute.’ We’ve had people go up and hug it, and embrace it for whatever reason,” Stacy Stephens, who helped found Knightscope, the company behind the bots, told KPIX News. The K5s also have alarm buttons so you can call for help in case of emergency.   Other police robots could help wounded soldiers and disabled officers get back on the job. Researchers at Florida International University’s Discovery Lab are studying how to create “telebots that allow law enforcement and veterans who are no longer able-bodied to do community policing in public areas and surveillance in places like ports and nuclear facilities. And authorities in the United Arab Emirates say the robot police they are putting into place for the 2020 Expo in Dubai will even be entertaining for the many visitors who will attend. “The robots will interact directly with people and tourists,” said Colonel Khalid Nasser Alrazooqi, according to the Khaleej Times. “They will include an interactive screen and microphone connected to the Dubai Police call centres. People will be able to ask questions and make complaints, but they will also have fun interacting with the robots.”

Never gets tired

Proponents of the AnBot say it can go to places too dangerous for humans, avoiding the physical and emotional trauma that damages real-life officers, only needing to stop for a re-charge and maintenance. But time and again, hackers find holes in supposedly secure apps, websites and systems, sometimes by accident, sometimes on purpose. Hospitals, police departments, nuclear plants and even the Pentagon can’t keep every hacker, every piece of malware out. “In principle, I understand the motivation for having robots like this but, when the VCR at my parent’s house still blinks 12:00, I have to wonder about the completeness of this Officer Alex J. Murphy [the hero of RoboCop movies] approach to law enforcement,” said Lewis. Some suggest the AnBot could serve as another type of big-screen hero–as long as it is unarmed. “Real-world problems and the high cost will make this a non-starter for most police forces,” said Coyle. “If the cost is low enough, however, I can see some shopping malls seeing this as a worthwhile security presence device—sans the weapons, of course. Just think, a whole new genre of Mall Cop movies.”