Insurgents Hack U.S. Drones with $26 Software

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    • #4499
      Don Donzal

      Article in the Wall Street Journal by SIOBHAN GORMAN, YOCHI J. DREAZEN and AUGUST COLE.

      WASHINGTON — Militants in Iraq have used $26 off-the-shelf software to intercept live video feeds from U.S. Predator drones, potentially providing them with information they need to evade or monitor U.S. military operations.

      Senior defense and intelligence officials said Iranian-backed insurgents intercepted the video feeds by taking advantage of an unprotected communications link in some of the remotely flown planes’ systems. Shiite fighters in Iraq used software programs such as SkyGrabber — available for as little as $25.95 on the Internet — to regularly capture drone video feeds, according to a person familiar with reports on the matter.

      U.S. officials say there is no evidence that militants were able to take control of the drones or otherwise interfere with their flights. Still, the intercepts could give America’s enemies battlefield advantages by removing the element of surprise from certain missions and making it easier for insurgents to determine which roads and buildings are under U.S. surveillance.

      The drone intercepts mark the emergence of a shadow cyber war within the U.S.-led conflicts overseas. They also point to a potentially serious vulnerability in Washington’s growing network of unmanned drones, which have become the American weapon of choice in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

      The Obama administration has come to rely heavily on the unmanned drones because they allow the U.S. to safely monitor and stalk insurgent targets in areas where sending American troops would be either politically untenable or too risky.

      The stolen video feeds also indicate that U.S. adversaries continue to find simple ways of counteracting sophisticated American military technologies.

      U.S. military personnel in Iraq discovered the problem late last year when they apprehended a Shiite militant whose laptop contained files of intercepted drone video feeds. In July, the U.S. military found pirated drone video feeds on other militant laptops, leading some officials to conclude that militant groups trained and funded by Iran were regularly intercepting feeds.

      In the summer 2009 incident, the military found “days and days and hours and hours of proof” that the feeds were being intercepted and shared with multiple extremist groups, the person said. “It is part of their kit now.”

      A senior defense official said that James Clapper, the Pentagon’s intelligence chief, assessed the Iraq intercepts at the direction of Defense Secretary Robert Gates and concluded they represented a shortcoming to the security of the drone network.

      “There did appear to be a vulnerability,” the defense official said. “There’s been no harm done to troops or missions compromised as a result of it, but there’s an issue that we can take care of and we’re doing so.”

      Senior military and intelligence officials said the U.S. was working to encrypt all of its drone video feeds from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, but said it wasn’t yet clear if the problem had been completely resolved.

      Some of the most detailed evidence of intercepted feeds has been discovered in Iraq, but adversaries have also intercepted drone video feeds in Afghanistan, according to people briefed on the matter. These intercept techniques could be employed in other locations where the U.S. is using pilotless planes, such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, they said.

      For entire story:


    • #28190

      That should be interesting…

      1) strongly encrypt the data stream
      2) increase latency, causing steering problems
      3) fly drones go “BOOM” into stationary objects


      1) weakly encrypt the data stream
      2) minimize latency
      3) wait for insurgents to break weak encryption
      4) rinse, repeat.

      Only other alternative I can think of in the 45 seconds I’m willing to spend on this thought process is to have daily changing weak encryption.

    • #28191

      I would have thought the US millitary would have uber secure technology byn now

      You post proved me wrong 🙁

    • #28192

      I thought one of the fundamental rules in all warfare is to “know your enemy”. Seems like we sometimes underestimate the cunning of people living in 3rd or 4th world countries. Thats a big mistake not only for the military but anyone involved in security.

    • #28193

      Another reminder about the power of passive reconnaissance. Done well your enemy does not know they are being snooped upon and the barrier to entry is often very low.


    • #28194

      @Kev wrote:

      Seems like we sometimes underestimate the cunning of people living in 3rd or 4th world countries.

      Sadly, not even a case of cunning, just buying a bit of software.

    • #28195

      I liked Bruce Schneier’s take on this at Wired.

      He says the commands to the things have always been encrypted, it’s the video they have to share with multiple people that’s not.

    • #28196
      Ash Chole

      A lot of presumptions were made in the responses. The information was capture on the down link. The connection to the drone has always been encrypted as to not allow anyone to gain control of the drone. The video stream coming from the drone however has been known to be unsecure since the 90’s. It was thought that it would be more hassle than it is worth to share keys with ALL of the people who need access to the stream.

      That said it is not the video stream that is captured that is that big of a deal. It is that they were able to capture it. To the insurgents this is a big win to simply be able to say that they tapped into a MULTI MILLION dollar military system by the big bad all powerful U.S. with a $26 russian napster program.

    • #28197

      @Ash Chole wrote:

      It was thought that it would be more hassle than it is worth to share keys with ALL of the people who need access to the stream.

      Many security issues like this are actually people problems. The same “security is too hard” attitude has been responsible for many large breaches, TJX being a particularly good example.

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