Military Predator video intercepted by Iraqis

Inexpensive software used to access downloads over one-year period

Iraqi insurgents have used inexpensive off-the-shelf software to intercept video feeds from Predator unmanned aerial vehicles during the past year, the Wall Street Journal reported today.

The Iranian-backed insurgents are using software programs such as SkyGrabber, which is available online for $26, defense and intelligence officials recently revealed. The insurgents were able to capture the video feeds using an unprotected communications link in some of the Predators.

No evidence exists that insurgents forces were able to commandeer the UAVs or disrupt their missions, the officials said. Nevertheless, insurgents with captured video might know which roads and buildings are under surveillance. As a result, U.S. air and ground forces conducting raids might find the element of surprise seriously compromised.

U.S. officials have known about the problem for about a year. A laptop taken from a Shiite militant in December 2008 contained files of intercepted video feeds from UAVs. The issue became more pressing in summer 2009 when U.S. military forces found additional laptops containing extensive stolen UAV video.

"UAVs have several signal and command and control capabilities. Those of high value intellignce are not what’s being discussed here," said Major General (Retired) Dale W. Meyerrose, who once served as Director of Command Control Systems, Headquarters North American Aerospace Defense Command,and now leads Harris Corp.'s National Cyber Initiative. 

"It is a mischaracterization to use ther term hacking," he added. "There was nothing hacked. It was the intercept of a broadcast signal," he said, akin to criminals intercepting police band signals.  More sensitive information, he insisted, would routinely be encrypted. 

The military is scrambling to make sure UAV video feeds are in fact encrypted in the wake of the incidents, notes Kevin Coleman in Defense Tech, who also is a columnist for Defense Systems. Updating decade-old components will pose a major encryption challenge to U.S. military technicians. Security should be built in and not bolted on later, Coleman said. 

To plug the vulnerabilities, military technicians must upgrade several components of the system linking the vehicle to ground control, U.S. military and intelligence officials said. Technicians are working to make sure that all UAVs compiling video from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan are securely encrypted to plug the vulnerability, they said.

The incident does make two things clear, however, said Meyerrose. One is that "technology  that seems to be an advantage, if you’re not paying attention, can become more of a vulnerability than is always realized," he said.  The other is the importance of recognizing how technically cyber-savvy the enemy is becoming.

About the Authors

William Welsh is a freelance writer covering IT and defense technology.

Wyatt Kash served as chief editor of GCN (October 2004 to August 2010) and also of Defense Systems (January 2009 to August 2010). He currently serves as Content Director and Editor at Large of 1105 Media.

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