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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 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.

"What would I do? I'd shut it down and give the money back to the shareholders." -- Michael Dell, after being asked what to do with Apple Computer in 1997
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