A Hack of the Drones: Insurgents Spy on Spy Planes With $26 Software

By Brett Israel | December 17, 2009 3:51 pm

predator-drone-webThe U.S. military does not think much of Iraqi militants’ technological capabilities. How else to explain the fact that their Predator drone surveillance planes used unencrypted links to send down to their military operators? The lack of encryption means that the drones’ data is less secure than most home wireless internet networks, a serious vulnerability in the unmanned aerial network.

According to a story in The Wall Street Journal today, video feeds from Predator drones have been intercepted by militants in Iraq.  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 [The Wall Street Journal]. Officials are saying that they don’t believe militants were able to take control of the drones, but by downloading the videos they were able to keep up with which areas were being monitored.

The Defense Department has responded by saying they discovered the vulnerability a year ago, and are working to encrypt all drone communications links in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. However, there are at least 600 unmanned vehicles and thousands of ground stations to upgrade, so the security improvement will not happen overnight. However, officials say they have made technical adjustments to systems in key threat areas to block the signal interception.

The breach arose because the Predator unmanned aerial vehicles do not use encryption in the final link to their operators on the ground. (By contrast, every time you log on to a bank or credit card Web site, or make a phone call on most modern cellular networks, your communications are protected by encryption technology) [CBS News]. After a Shiite militant was captured in Iraq with a laptop full of intercepted drone feeds, and following similar discoveries, officials concluded that groups were trained and funded by Iran to intercept and share video feeds.

The problem is similar to street criminals listening to police scanners, according to Dale Meyerrose, former chief information officer for the U.S. intelligence community. The military has known about the vulnerability for more than a decade, but assumed adversaries would not be able to exploit it [AP]. The surveillance network described in most news reports suggests that the final link between the drone and the operator is between a satellite flying around in space and that that final link is unencrypted for reasons unfathomable to anyone with even cursory knowledge of network communications. Maybe they wanted to save on bandwidth costs [Crunch Gear]?

Following the publication of The Wall Street Journal‘s story on the security breach, Bryan Whitman, a U.S. defense official and Pentagon spokesman, said on Thursday that they have fixed the leak, but declined to discuss any details.

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Image: U.S. Air Force

  • Coty

    Our tax dollars at work!

  • Cory

    I’ve sometimes worried about the fact that our government has flying, stealth assassin drones. Then I remember crap like this, and worry a bit less.

  • Anne

    Another shining example of why “military intelligence” is an oxymoron.

  • Alan Green

    This is what you get for privatizing and selling away out nation’s top secrets… soon they’ll be able to control our tomahawk missiles. Want to know how to prepare? http://www.tictacdo.com/ttd/Build-a-Fallout-Shelter

  • Alan Green

    Yeah. And don’t even get me started on the Chinese…

  • http://www.happyphil.com Happy Phil

    Another $2,700,000,000.00 wasted by the military @ 4.5 million per drone. Well, at least the predator manufacturer is getting rich on this pointless endeavor in Afghanistan. How much more is it going to cost until we ‘get even’ with Bin Laden?



  • John in Virginia

    Wake up Ye of little faith! Accept the facts: much of the significant information released by the military only partially reveals the full truth of any situation. Yes, these are your tax dollars at work. Hard working and doing a magnificent job. Check out the Predator accomplishments to date. Oversights occur. They get corrected. But only an idiot would even hint that he has all the answers at hand…all the time…eternally to keep on track. This idiot recommends encrypting the entire military world! The same idiot has no earthly idea the levels of encryptment presently on the shelf much less what is involved in such a major conversion.
    In a fantasy world of total tactical foreknowledge, we would have completed this sorry mess years ago. Alas, neither of our worlds are tactically complete. Our world is, thanks to these begrudged tax dollars, more tactically proficient at any given time than theirs.
    Can you spell r-e-a-l-i-s-t-i-c limitations. How do you say: Cut the negative crap unless you have the foggiest idea of all that is involved. Or even half of it. If we and our military are so inept, my friend, I recommend you to abandon ship. Recall the words of the California Governor: Hasta la vista or something like that.

  • JJ

    Santa ! Sorry for the short notice, but could you bring me a copy of SkyGrabber?
    I’d like to watch too!

  • Christina Viering

    Good info.

  • http://www.sysrisk.com Kirt Cathey

    This article, while increasing awareness about the issue, does not address the real challenge. Bruce Schneier addresses the challenge behind encrypting all these communications better, and he addresses this subject specifically.

  • http://none jWhite

    This article is not correct. The 26$ software is not capable of receiving the channels used on predator drones. This is complete and utter BS. Obviously any signal transmitted via radio can be intercepted, but this is just miss information.


    Skygrabber is for porn.

  • http://none jWhite
  • Miles

    Funnily enough, I’m all for an ineffective military. Maybe it will keep us from attacking sovereign states what with aggression being the supreme war crime and all.


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