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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: Why not encrypted in the first place?
By aapocketz on 12/17/2009 2:15:17 PM , Rating: 2
just a guess, but back in the 90s when the predator was designed, COTS military ruggedized digital video encryption hardware was difficult to find and it was probably deemed unnecessary at the time. Many UAVs even today use unscrambled analog feeds for comparison. Once you have manufactured a bunch of ground control stations and UAVs its hard to just change that. I am positive that new UAV systems designed today are all encrypted video.

Also its not like you install this program on a laptop and all of a sudden you can grab video from thin air. You have to hook it into an antenna front end of some sort that is able to grab and demodulate the feed at the proper frequencies. Even then you get the video, you got to know what it is of, does it have KLV data or an overlay? Where is the video of? A lot of the work in any surveillance system is not the raw info, but what it means and what to do with it.

By HighWing on 12/18/2009 1:44:09 PM , Rating: 2
I'm not an A/V expert but I do know enough to know that what your talking about doing is not all that hard to figure out, especially for someone who knows the stuff. Since we are working with unencrypted feeds, there are only so many standards to test against. Enough that I'm sure it wouldn't take months to figure out, probably only a few days at worst. My guess is the first thing they would do is record the raw data, then start throwing it against the different equipment/encoders till they got some sort of picture. Then you fine tune it from there. Once that's done you know exactly what you need to go watch the live feeds. Not like it's rocket science here.

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