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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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RE: **Shakes head**
By weskurtz0081 on 12/17/2009 1:21:54 PM , Rating: 2
Do you think it's possible that there might have been some limitations back in the 90's that made it difficult to encrypt? Maybe bandwidth problems?

RE: **Shakes head**
By Smilin on 12/17/2009 1:37:48 PM , Rating: 5

RE: **Shakes head**
By weskurtz0081 on 12/17/2009 2:07:39 PM , Rating: 2
How about limitations to the mission. Outside of cost, do you think there could have been a reason they chose NOT to encrypt the feed?

RE: **Shakes head**
By T2k on 12/17/09, Rating: -1
RE: **Shakes head**
By weskurtz0081 on 12/17/2009 3:00:30 PM , Rating: 4
Well, clearly you don't understand what I am asking.

Are you fully aware of the limitations that were faced back in the early 90's when these things were being designed.

Are you fully aware of the reasoning that was involved when the final decision was made to not encrypt the feed?

Or, are you just going to act like some keyboard gangster, slinging curse words around and making everything bold for some reason.

How many years did you spend in the military, how familiar with the limitations and decision making process that were involved when the Predator was designed?

RE: **Shakes head**
By Smilin on 12/18/2009 12:39:51 PM , Rating: 4
So I'll answer on his behalf (to spare us both the rant).

I am sure there were a great deal of limitations and challenges when this project was underway. However all of these variables that are unknown to you and I are irrelevant.

The need to encrypt realtime intelligence data trumps all other reasoning.

And to answer your other questions:
1 tour in military - Naval aviation.
Not familiar at all with processes during predator design.

RE: **Shakes head**
By weskurtz0081 on 12/18/2009 5:46:36 PM , Rating: 2
So, your answer is, regardless of what was required, how feasible it was, if it was reasonably possible at that time, it should have been done.

I was also in the military, in aviation, specifically avionics, 1 tour.

RE: **Shakes head**
By JHBoricua on 12/17/2009 4:15:09 PM , Rating: 2
Outside of cost, do you think there could have been a reason they chose NOT to encrypt the feed?
Besides the decision maker being clueless there is absolutely no reason not to have this encrypted.

RE: **Shakes head**
By weskurtz0081 on 12/17/2009 4:41:35 PM , Rating: 2
Roll the clock back 20 years, and tell me what you would say then.

RE: **Shakes head**
By JediJeb on 12/17/2009 5:35:04 PM , Rating: 2
Exactly, 20 years ago when the technology was in the 286 processor and slower range encryption would have been something to be carefully looked at to know if it would handle real time feeds with the amount of data needed to be transmitted. So many today just think that we have always been able to stream HDTV to our cellphones like it was nothing.

RE: **Shakes head**
By weskurtz0081 on 12/17/2009 10:06:45 PM , Rating: 2
Exactly, thank you.

Also consider, the technology to hijack these unencrypted feeds might not have been as readily available either.

Much has changed since then, and the issues they were facing then were completely different than the issues they would be facing today if they were designing them today. Just like the technology will have advanced MUCH further in the next 20 years.

They had a plan to replace these drones with newer versions that would have fixed this problem, but the funding and the project was axed.

RE: **Shakes head**
By Smilin on 12/18/2009 12:56:28 PM , Rating: 4

The technology to encrypt the video stream WAS available. It was a decision not to use it.

Sure they were using a 286 or something in PCs back then but we're not talking about a PC are we? Specialized hardware has always been able to outperform general purpose CPUs. If they were stuck using 286s they wouldn't even have enough horsepower to process the video...encrypted or not.

RE: **Shakes head**
By Zoomer on 12/19/2009 8:44:46 PM , Rating: 2
And that would add design complexity, power requirements, etc. With the reliability reqs and redundancy required, it may have required even more ICs.

If they were stuck using 286s they wouldn't even have enough horsepower to process the video.

Exactly. Why spent the extra effort, delaying the project and adding costs to it, when even the most powerful computer that could even be conceived could not handle simple animated gifs, let alone intercepting and decoding video?

The plan seems sound to me; implement the base functionality and leave out the fluff for the first release, then improve it for the next revision.

We hear of military projects having ridiculous cost and deadline overruns. They can't be all incompetent. I'm sure part of the reason why is the revision of requirements AFTER they started. This is like software engineering 101.

RE: **Shakes head**
By micksh on 12/17/2009 2:35:24 PM , Rating: 1
Encryption hardware would add weight to drones thus reducing useful load they can carry. That's one of the reasons.

RE: **Shakes head**
By JHBoricua on 12/17/2009 4:16:48 PM , Rating: 5
Encryption hardware would add weight to drones thus reducing useful load they can carry. That's one of the reasons.
Yep, all those extra ounces of having an encryption chip was the dealbreaker.

RE: **Shakes head**
By blowfish on 12/17/2009 4:23:02 PM , Rating: 2
An encrypted feed should use no more bandwidth than an unencrypted one - it just takes mor processing power at the UAV and the ground station.

It's hardly as if these things are built down to a price anyway! You know for a fact that the manufacturers are making a bigger margin on any military equipment than they would in the real world.

This just seems on the face of it to be a monumentally arrogant f"!k-up.

RE: **Shakes head**
By weskurtz0081 on 12/17/2009 4:40:42 PM , Rating: 2
Really, so you are saying encryption has NO over head? Even today encryption such as IPSEC has about an 8% overhead, and I would be willing to bet that overhead was higher 20 years ago.

Look man, clearly you are not capable of considering that things were a little different 20 years ago in the encryption and internet/satellite arena. I agree, they screwed up, but back in the early 90's, data encryption wasn't as big of a deal as it is today, it just wasn't. How many people were even able to afford a computer when these things were being designed? Just think about it, you don't know what was going on when General Atomics Aeronautical Systems were designing these drones.

RE: **Shakes head**
By GeorgeOu on 12/17/2009 9:33:05 PM , Rating: 2
That "8% overhead" comes from added size in the packet header, but that only applies when you're trying to encrypt at the IP layer. If you encrypted at the application layer, it does not add that kind of overhead.

RE: **Shakes head**
By weskurtz0081 on 12/17/2009 10:12:28 PM , Rating: 2
And encrypting the entire video feed on late 80's early 90's technology wouldn't have posed any issues back then?

Not to mention, would the type of encryption they used back then even be worth a damn today? Similar to wireless encryption, it's EXTREMELY easy to crack older encryption standards, and much more difficult to crack newer ones.

Also, it would have created a tactical problem on the ground. The troops would then have to manage the security, contractors would have to be trusted, any of the hardware on the ground capable of handling the encryption would have to be destroyed if the user was captured.

There are SO many issues that would have been introduced if it was done back then. Should they have done it? I don't know. Maybe, I am not really sure what it would have taken to accomplish it when they were designing the drone. I am not sure what the limitations of the Satellite system was back then. There are a LARGE number of variables that you have to account for.

RE: **Shakes head**
By karielash on 12/17/2009 10:55:30 PM , Rating: 3
You can update encryption algorithms and redesign or implement new hardware. Simple fact is there was hardware encryption available at the time (no matter how limited that might have been after 20 years) but someone took a conscious decision not to implement even basic levels of protection. It need not have been complex, even a delay of a few minutes between a live and a hacked video stream could make the difference between success and failure. This was a poor decision no matter how you look at it. And not correcting that mistake once it was apparent was an exceptionally bad move.

RE: **Shakes head**
By weskurtz0081 on 12/17/2009 11:51:03 PM , Rating: 2
The point is, there is probably more to it than you and I are aware of.

I agree that it was probably a mistake, but remember, hind sight is 20/20. It's easy to say they screwed up, but a little more difficult to understand what the entire scope of the decision required.

As far as redesigning hardware, often times it's not a simple task in aviation. Most of the computers on military air craft are running old hardware by consumer standards. Much of that stuff is VERY proprietary and might be rather expensive to fix/replace.

Also, remember, these drones were originally scheduled to be replaced earlier this decade, but the funding go cut.

Anyway, I don't disagree it was a mistake, and I have said as much multiple times, I just think the situation may have been a little more involved that just saying "they should have encrypted the video feed".

RE: **Shakes head**
By weskurtz0081 on 12/17/2009 11:59:56 PM , Rating: 2
One other thing to think about. Encryption still has CPU overhead, and who knows what type of encryption was available then, what kind of power it took, what type of hardware is on the drone....

Point is, there are MANY MANY different possibilities that should be considered, it was 20 years ago.

Sitting here today, I agree, it is clear it should have been encrypted, but if I were back in 1990 working for the contractor that designed it, I might not be saying the same thing.

RE: **Shakes head**
By SlyNine on 12/18/2009 3:26:34 AM , Rating: 3
They had DES in 1977, Otho it is insecure today any encryption is better then none. This combined with none standard container files and codecs could have made it very hard to intercept and make useful in a reasonable amount of time.

Remember it probably doesn't matter if they break it a month from now.

The biggest problem would be any false sense of security.

"It's okay. The scenarios aren't that clear. But it's good looking. [Steve Jobs] does good design, and [the iPad] is absolutely a good example of that." -- Bill Gates on the Apple iPad
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