The Wall Street Journal is reporting today that Iraqi militants have been able to tap into the video feeds of US Predator drones by using readily available software programs such as SkyGrabber which can be bought for as little as $25.95 on the Internet.
The WSJ story says that "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."
Officials also say that there is no evidence that control of the drones has been compromised.
The story goes on to say that the US military discovered the problem in December of 2008 when they captured a Shiite militant who had a laptop containing files of intercepted drone video feeds. Then in July of this year, the military found more pirated drone video feeds on other captured militants' laptops.
US defense officials said they were now working on encrypting all video feeds from UAVs being used in Afghanistan and Iraq.
According to the WSJ, the reason why encryption wasn't done from the very beginning was that Predator drones, which are built by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems of San Diego, California use a proprietary communications technology for some of its communications. Therefore, widely used encryption systems aren't readily compatible.
In addition, the WSJ reports, adding in encryption would have delayed deployment, as well as raised the price of the Predators (by how much wasn't stated).
The WSJ quotes Michael Wynne, former Air Force Secretary from 2005 to 2008 as saying, "There's a balance between pragmatics and sophistication," which sounds like a lame excuse to me and one based on technological arrogance.
The Predator has been flying for almost 15 years now, and according to the WSJ, the military has known about the problem all along.
However, the WSJ says, "the Pentagon assumed local adversaries wouldn't know how to exploit it."
After being surprised by militants building sophisticated IEDs using simple technology one would think the US military would know better by now than to make that type of assumption.
The story concludes by saying the same problem apparently affects the Reaper drone as well, which the US Air Force is buying in the hundreds at $10 - 12 million a pop.
I wrote about the increasing use of COTS products being used for warfare in Spectrum here in 2007.
Robert N. Charette is a Contributing Editor to IEEE Spectrum and an acknowledged international authority on information technology and systems risk management. A self-described “risk ecologist,” he is interested in the intersections of business, political, technological, and societal risks. Charette is an award-winning author of multiple books and numerous articles on the subjects of risk management, project and program management, innovation, and entrepreneurship. A Life Senior Member of the IEEE, Charette was a recipient of the IEEE Computer Society’s Golden Core Award in 2008.