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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Reader Comments

Sat, Aug 21, 2010

>Now we know how hard our tax money is working.

If you have followed the entire war, from its fabricated lead-up til now, you would realize that the money you put into the military is not intended to work for you. The only logical goal is a way for defense contractors to siphon tax dollars from your pocket to theirs.
In which case this security breach is not a problem for accomplishing their goal. It is just bad PR since it could feasibly endanger soldiers.

>I believe there is far too much information available to the public, about our military

The govt is an employee of the citizen. Do you think that companies should be disallowed from monitoring the work of employees?

Mon, May 3, 2010 John Galt

Forgive them Deone, for they know not what they do.

Mon, May 3, 2010 Deone Hoonoz

The $Billion$ Dollar-Man get screwed by the $26 Dollar-Man. Way to go America!

Now we know how hard our tax money is working. Or should we say is wasted on Smoke’n Mirror technologies.

Mon, Jan 4, 2010 lge2000 Oklahoma

I don't see a big deal in letting the bad guys now we're up in the sky looking down on them knowing that the next thing that may happen is a big boom, which they won't hear,,,,I doubt if they can use that video feed for any real time purpose,,,,,,,Let' use the KISS principle,,,keep it simple stupid,,,no use in making our drones to complicated to use in a timely manner,,,,,,,

Mon, Dec 21, 2009

I believe there is far too much information available to the public, about our military. It doesn't surprise me that we fear that our defense systems and/or programs are compromised. The military either allows the news media to divulge the info or the news media doesn’t know when to be silent. We have no business knowing that our military has newly developed robots and where they are being placed but that was publicized. Why aren’t we silent when it comes to what, when where or how our military? There are a lot of other people who feel the same way I do. There is way more flow of info than we need to know. We spend all this money for defense purposes and then we divulge what many of us consider “sensitive” to the military’s mission. What happened to common sense?

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