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Officials say there is no evidence that flight control systems were compromised

The U.S. military makes heavy use of UAVs in many areas of the world for reconnaissance duties. The UAV is widely used in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as in Somalia and other locations. The drones are used to track and sometimes attack targets when needed.

The Wall Street Journal reports that enemy insurgents have been able to use a commonly available piece of software to intercept the unencrypted feeds that the drone uses between the aircraft and ground control. The software used by the insurgents to capture the video feeds was a $26 app available online called Sky Grabber.

One of the developers of the Sky Grabber software told the WSJ in an email, "It [Sky Grabber] was developed to intercept music, photos, video, programs and other content that other users download from the internet -- no military data or other commercial data, only free legal content."

The military claims that there is no indication that he insurgents were able to take control of the drones or interfere with their flight in any way. However, some fear that the ability to capture the live video feeds will allow the insurgents to track the position of the drones to better avoid attack and surveillance. The big fear is that intercepted feeds could be used to discover allied troop surprise attacks and lead to the death of allied soldiers.

The interception of the video feeds from the aircraft was apparently not a onetime occurrence. In the summer of 2009, the WSJ reports that the military found "days and days and hours and hours of proof" that the video feeds were being intercepted on a laptop that was recovered from a Shiite militant.

A defense official James Clapper was asked to assess the interception of the feeds and concluded, "There did appear to be vulnerability. 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."

The military is working on encrypting all feeds from its drone aircraft, but adding encryption to the feeds requires not only updates be added to the drones, but updates to the control systems on the ground as well. The U.S. first learned of the flaw in unencrypted drone feeds in Bosnia during the 1990s, but the Pentagon assumed that the insurgents wouldn't know how to exploit the vulnerability.

While the evidence of feeds found was most prolific in Iraq, there is evidence that the feeds have been intercepted in Afghanistan as well. "There was evidence this was not a one-time deal," said a person close to the matter.

Fixing the security gap in the drones during the program development would have added delays according to former security officials and would have added to the cost of the drones. Even the new generation of drones called Reaper have feeds that are unencrypted.

It's unclear whether the successor to the Reaper called the Avenger will suffer from the same issue with unencrypted security feeds.

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By fatedtodie on 12/17/2009 12:25:20 PM , Rating: 0
Encryption adds bandwidth overhead.

The thinking was probably "with encryption we can send 720p data real time, without we can send 1080p real time"
(These are not real specs obviously just using that to frame an idea DUH they aren't using 720p or 1080p)

Sending a VIDEO file real time isn't just as easy as it sounds, anyone that has used wifi in a house knows how wireless transmission is flakey and if you use a VPN over wifi dont count on getting much done.

That being said the first maybe even second generation is quite likely to be unencrypted. 3 opr 4 generations down the line it is reasonable they learn how to compress or whatever is needed to get the same performance while adding additional security.

Please try to think pass the sensationalism to real world. Sometimes it isn't people screwing up but a genuine real reason something happens the way it does.

By Donovan on 12/17/2009 1:02:14 PM , Rating: 5
Encryption doesn't require any bandwidth overhead as long as you do any compression before you encrypt...the output is generally the exact same size as the input. It does require some processing overhead, but preventing monumentally stupid f-ups like this is well worth the extra cost. I'm astounded that there wasn't even some simple scrambling or obfuscation being done.

It's pretty sad when our state-of-the-art military weaponry has less security than a home gaming console. Those consoles may get hacked too, but I would like to see the enemy trying to perform the Twiizer attack on a UAV in flight.

By JediJeb on 12/17/2009 5:51:59 PM , Rating: 1
And how big would a computer that is comparable to an Xbox or PS3 have been in the early 90s when these were being developed? It's like comparing an Atari 2600 to a PS3 and saying they would have no trouble running the PS3 games on the Atari. Who know that headaches would have been involved with encryption back when these were being designed.

As someone else also posted, back when these were being designed noone would have thought that for $26 you could buy some software that would pick up the feed.

It was an oversite that they have not yet been retrofitted with something to encrypt the data, but I don't think you can put all the blame on the original designers.

By Smilin on 12/17/2009 1:36:22 PM , Rating: 2
Both the bandwidth and processing overhead of encryption are negligible (look at say IPSec or SRTP) and transmitting video across the globe has been commonplace since the days of black and white.

Video across wifi works just fine AND it's modestly encrypted already. A UAV is going to have far more bandwidth available and have less strenuous latency requirements. Running encryption will not make or break a video stream. If the network fails with encryption it was almost certainly going to fail without.

This has nothing to do with "real reasons" of why it was done this way. This is outright incompetence.

By fatedtodie on 12/17/09, Rating: -1
By blowfish on 12/17/2009 4:26:43 PM , Rating: 3
in English perhaps?

By Smilin on 12/17/2009 4:30:22 PM , Rating: 2
What you are calling "mom mentality" the rest of us call logic. Or here is another colorful phrase we could use for the USAF right now: "stupid is as stupid does". You asked for proof though. Here it is...

My proof that this is incompetence lies in the fact that:
1. It was a deliberate decision not to encrypt.
2. This was a stupid decision.

Now since you clearly disagree please tell me if it's #1 or #2 you disagree with.

Was it an accident rather than a deliberate decision? "oops I encrypted the control channel but just totally spaced the bad!!!" or... do you argue that it was a smart decision? (and please do enlighten us with your genius on this).

If you are really looking at all of this and saying "oh people just want to complain" rather than "this is fcuking stupid" then you sir are the fcuking stupid one.

By donxvi on 12/17/2009 10:59:26 PM , Rating: 2
Do you have a design tradeoff document that was used in making this decision ? Was it in error ? Think pros & cons.

Have you ever been involved in design of a complex system ? Heck, the ones I work on in my job aren't THAT amazing, but in the real world of engineering, it's rare that there's a RIGHT or WRONG big decision or else it wouldn't be an issue. It's a ROCK and a HARD PLACE decision. Engineering is all about tradeoffs and compromises. That's how products get turned from ideas into hardware.

You'll see examples of that when you get out into the real world.

By SlyNine on 12/18/2009 3:12:55 AM , Rating: 2
Encryption has been done since WW2 transmissions. There is no tradeoff. Its as simple as this. If it has to do with intelligence and protecting information that can be used to kill our troops, YOU ENCRYPT IT! Its not like they used an encryption that got broke, they simply did not use anything at all.

This is not a rock in a hard place or a trade off. This is broadcasting military intelligence for the world to intercept. It sounds ludicrous that it's that big of a fug up. But it is and there IS NO excuse.

By donxvi on 12/18/2009 6:08:55 AM , Rating: 2
I don't know much about signals broadcasting, much less encryption of such, how do you know so much ? I don't see many engineering decisions that don't involve a tradeoff out there in industry. You obviously feel this was a "must-have" but it appears that someone that spent more than 10 minutes thinking about it, and had some position of power in government or industry, didn't.

I've learned through my years that a failure to recongize that the things other people do probably include the same challenges and non-obvious details as the things I do is a sign of an inexperienced or closed mind.

By Smilin on 12/18/2009 11:55:52 AM , Rating: 1
You obviously feel this was a "must-have" but it appears that someone that spent more than 10 minutes thinking about it, and had some position of power in government or industry, didn't.

That is exactly my point. It *IS* a must-have and that person in power made the wrong decision. I do not have to be an expert in their field or do years long analysis to see this.

There is no way you can frame this as a good decision. When you start weighing pros and cons of cost, development time, technical limitations in the 90s etc you are just chipping dimes onto a scale. The need for intelligence data to be encrypted is a 50lb rock on the other side of the scale.

Put it this way: If it was a good decision would we be having this discussion?

I've learned through my years that a failure to recongize that the things other people do probably include the same challenges and non-obvious details as the things I do is a sign of an inexperienced or closed mind

Really? That's where you went with him?

We'll I've learned through my years that blubbidy bluuuuh and blibbudy-blib that you are an inferior bluh.

Let your argument speak for itself. Don't make (likely incorrect) assumptions about the person you are debating with or lend yourself some unverifiable credentials. Nobody here is so close minded that they don't recognize that UAV development is *hard*.

By SlyNine on 12/19/2009 4:01:49 PM , Rating: 2
You're using an appeal to authority fallacy in your argument. Your conclusion is, since supposed experts in x field didn't do something there must have been a "GOOD" reason. If you have an argument then use it. This is like when the moon hoax believers say Jan Lunberg couldn't explain a photo and that means the moon landing might be faked.

There is nothing wrong with asking what's the trade off and getting both sides. But don't just assume because an expert didn't do it wasn't some sorta blunder.

By Smilin on 12/18/2009 12:04:42 PM , Rating: 2
You'll see examples of that when you get out into the real world.

And I'm sure you'll have better success at whatever it is you do once you lose your condescending attitude and incorrect assumption that others lack your experience.

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