The White House Drone Crash and the Coming Privacy Nightmare

by Dan Bongino

At approximately 3:00 a.m. on Monday, January 26, 2015, a two-foot-long, commercially available, quadcopter drone crashed onto the sprawling South Grounds of the White House complex after being spotted by a Secret Service Uniformed Division officer. Although the White House drone crash was downplayed by the presidential and security staff, Pandora’s Box had been opened and the entire world saw what was inside.

I woke at 5:30 a.m. on January 26, 2015, just hours after the White House drone crash  and I found out about it as I was preparing to do a morning interview with CNN. The scheduled interview was about a police use-of-force incident involving a New York media figure’s son, but I received a text from a CNN producer asking me about “the device at the White House.” When I read the details of the incident, I knew that this was a game- changing moment for not only the Secret Service, but for law enforcement, military, and security professionals everywhere.

White House drone crash

The 2015 White House drone crash was cause for immediate major concern. By Daniel Schwen. Image is in the public domain via Wikimedia.com

The Secret Service is staffed with highly qualified agents who spend the majority of their time thinking through potential attack and mitigation scenarios involving the many bizarre and creative ways potential assassins can inflict disaster upon their protectees. But drone technology creates a number of unique security headaches for the Secret Service. Many of these problems became apparent on the night of the White House drone crash. Any object that can transport, or hide, surveillance technology or weapons (everything from airplanes and cars to suitcases and unattended packages) will always be a concern for security professionals, but drones are especially concerning because of their size, obtainability, and detectability.

Planes and automobiles can carry explosives toward a secure facility in the form of a car bomb or through a plane’s fuel tank in a suicide mission, but they are both large enough to be detected or mitigated in advance if the proper security protocols are followed. It takes time to circumvent security precautions on a plane. Whether it’s the air traffic control monitoring the flight path of the plane or the airport security mechanisms monitoring the passengers flying on the plane, these security precautions buy time and time is necessary to implement a successful attack. A warning from air traffic control or from the TSA creates time and this time, however brief, frequently avails the security operation of some warning and time to respond. Drones offer none of this because they are difficult to detect due to their size and they are easily acquired and operated. There is no airport TSA magnetometer to circumvent, no air traffic control operator to deceive, no pi lot training required, and as quickly as the drone appears at the White House or some other secure location, its explosive payload can be detonated with little warning.

White House drone crash

While explosive transporting drones present new airborne explosive threats, drone technology also presents surveillance threats. This technology is leading us down a road where insect-sized surveillance drones could land on your shoulder, without your knowledge, with little warning, and record every action and word you do and say. Whereas this technology offers tremendous tactical advantages to our military on the field of battle, and to law enforcement in their quest for a wider and more undetectable surveillance net, it also offers countless opportunities for intelligence and blackmail for those among us with malicious intent. How many of you would be comfortable if your every private moment was recorded?

Technology has always been a sword with a sharp double edge. It will inevitably bring us into a future where our food, energy, transportation, and entertainment needs and wants will be far less constricted than they are today. But technology, as we have seen with the rapidly evolving drone threat, is also leading us down the road to a future where security and privacy will have to be bought, and the market solutions will be in short supply and in high demand.

Many of the physical and technical mechanisms we use today to build our secure environments at airports, government facilities, courts, sporting and entertainment events, and around our elected officials, will be obsolete in the very near future due to rapidly evolving technologies, which can easily circumvent these traditional firewalls. Compounding the problem is the explosive growth in information technology and rapid information transfer through the Internet. This has created a virtually open forum to share techniques for defeating and evading traditional physical and technological security mechanisms we have come to rely on.

It has also become a breeding ground for the interception of, and trading in, both personal and corporate information obtained illicitly. The hacking of Sony, and the subsequent release of sensitive e- mails and corporate secrets, will become ubiquitous in the future and anyone with a public profile will become a potential target for bribery and extortion through the hacking of their personal communications.

One of the ironies of the unfolding surveillance state (both government surveillance and private surveillance) is that a blurry distinction between the “public self” and the “private self” was once the near- exclusive hallmark of totalitarian regimes and command- and- control economies. We all have a “public self” and that “public self” acts and speaks far differently than the “private self” does.

As citizens of the United States, a constitutional Republic, we understand the distinction between how we act when we know, or feel, that we are being watched and when we are confident that we are alone. This confidence, that we are alone and behaving as the private self, is not a feeling shared by people who were reared under the heavy hand of government in totalitarian regimes where friends, family, and neighbors are taught that their most important loyalty is to the state.

White House drone crash

This is the emblem of the Diplomatic Security Service of the United States Department of State.. By Various – Unknown. Image is in the public domain via Wikimedia.com

This perverted sense of loyalty to the state over all encourages those friends, family, and neighbors to report on any acts of perceived subversion or insubordination. The psychological ramifications to a person’s sense of privacy and individuality are devastating from the many personal accounts I have heard from people raised under oppressive state regimes. The unparalleled success of our mix of relatively free markets and representative democracy has created a country so prosperous that the destruction of the private self in the United States, through developments in surveillance technology, may result in the same devastating psychological fallout in the future, even though the origins of that destruction come from the private sector and not the state. What were considered to be exclusively personal e-mail, voice, and text interactions in the past will be handled with skepticism by both parties to the conversation as the potential for uninvited monitoring by third parties becomes more likely.

Business meetings will never be the same for companies that could potentially have the full contents of their meetings disclosed for the world to see as surveillance technology advances and miniaturizes. The surveillance future will also create new opportunities for Peeping Tom types who are no longer limited by the height of your windows and their eyes.

None of this is new to the thousands of federal agents and military and intelligence personnel who have traveled extensively as part of their job routine. As a Secret Service agent on foreign visits, I was always briefed by the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service, within hours of landing in a new country, about the threat of both physical and technical surveillance during my stay in the respective country.

I recall a visit to a country in Asia where I was shown some very revealing pictures by an ARSO (Assistant Regional Security Officer) of the Diplomatic Security Service of an American businessman with an attractive woman who was not his significant other. The ARSO explained to me that the hotel room had been wired for video and sound and that the businessman was the unlucky target of an intricate corporate espionage and bribery attempt. But to set up a surveillance operation such as this, traditionally took some modicum of skill, effort, and technological savvy to wire the room for sound and video and to prepare it for the operation. The new, user-friendly, and increasingly unnoticeable camera and video technology being developed will render the costs of these types of operations minimal and the potential rewards, if they catch the right fish in their surveillance net, substantial.

Corporate and government secrets will no longer be secret unless costly and time-consuming surveillance countermeasures are employed.


DAN BONGINO served in the Secret Service during the administrations of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. In 2011, he ran for the Senate and finished second. He ran for Congress in 2014 and lost by one point. He hosts a radio show on WMAL, and guest hosts on the Sean Hannity and the Mark Levin radio shows. He provides commentary for CNN, FOX, MSNBC, NBC, and others. His first book, Life Inside the Bubble, was aNew York Times bestseller. He lives in Florida.

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