Join 3,572 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Hacking the Predator
December 17, 2009 8:38 AM   Subscribe

Insurgents Hack U.S. Drones. "Militants in Iraq have used $26 off-the-shelf software to intercept live video feeds from U.S. Predator drones, potentially providing them with information they need to evade or monitor U.S. military operations." [Via]
posted by homunculus (86 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
The sad thing is that I'm not surprised they got hacked. I'm more surprised the software to hack them costs money.
posted by mccarty.tim at 8:39 AM on December 17, 2009 [6 favorites]


Sad that our engineers can't implement better encryption, at all levels, that would have made this a non-issue - it's not that hard, it's not that expensive, and it's inexcusable. I sincerely hope that heads roll.
posted by mdrosen at 8:43 AM on December 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


Insurgents got jacked! Open source, bitches!
posted by autodidact at 8:44 AM on December 17, 2009 [6 favorites]


I wonder how much more work is it going to take them to hack the guidance and control system....
posted by Big_B at 8:47 AM on December 17, 2009


LOL. How hard could it have been to encrypt that stuff? What the hell?

I think part of it may be the long time it takes to build military hardware, by the time they actually come out the computer technology can be, like, decades out of date.

But given the fact that these things are unmanned, why not just use off the shelf hardware, rather then aviation-grade stuff? You could put an ordinary PC up there and it would be able to handle encryption/decryption pretty easily, among other things.
posted by delmoi at 8:50 AM on December 17, 2009


It looks like you are trying to quell an insurgency.

Would you like some help?
posted by fire&wings at 8:51 AM on December 17, 2009 [58 favorites]


The use of drones is rather problematic for me. It's very easy to be swayed by arguments that they keep "our" troops out of harm's way. But, I think it comes into the newly arisen category of warfare that can be termed "chickenshit asymmetry". It's only fitting that "insurgents" should find low cost ways of defeating these things.
posted by Burhanistan at 8:54 AM on December 17, 2009 [11 favorites]


Geez, how many times does tech support have to tell them not to use "evildoers911" as their password for everything?
posted by FelliniBlank at 8:54 AM on December 17, 2009 [5 favorites]


It's not so much that the military are too stupid to use encryption. I think it's probably more a structural problem of beancounting -- if it's not marked "classified", why do you want to spend extra money to encrypt it? It's the military, you know there's a ton of paperwork with every decision.

Interestingly the article talks about "stolen" and "pirated" (instead of just "intercepted") video. I guess that means the next step is to sic the RIAA/MPAA on them.
posted by phliar at 8:57 AM on December 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


The guidance and control systems are probably fine. It's not really a "hack" in the sense of a breakin, it's making use of the fact that the video downlink isn't encrypted and just intercepting it.

The Predator was designed in the late 80s and early 90s (first service 1995) so even though it's "high tech" in military-system terms, it's not exactly new technology. When it was designed, real-time encryption of the video feed was a much more serious technical hurdle than it is today.

It's pretty stupid, but the sad part is that I can envision exactly how it happened: there wasn't a requirement to encrypt the video downlink, so the ability wasn't built in. Now, with thousands of units and their associated infrastructure in service, putting it in retroactively is a major problem. Somebody decided to try the old "security through obscurity" approach and just hope that the adversaries wouldn't learn of the interception opportunity, which of course never works for that long.

Hopefully, next time they'll include encryption for everything as one of the key requirements. Or, better yet, work on decreasing the lifecycle time on military systems so they don't fall behind the commercial-technology curve so badly. Obviously, the military has special requirements which mandate a much higher degree of testing and more robust acceptance criteria than the private sector, but there's no reason (besides bureaucracy and cost inflation) why the lifecycle needs to be as slow as it is.

Given that the pace of technological change in the civilian/commercial sector probably isn't going to slow down significantly (unless you're a total transistor-density fatalist), we're doomed to more stuff like this if military systems are consistently 10+ years behind the commercial world.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:58 AM on December 17, 2009 [7 favorites]


Eh, the U.S. military is super-rich and makes tons of drones. No one's really getting hurt if a couple of people take a few that they never would have anyway if they couldn't get them for free. Plus, getting their hands on the drones only makes insurgents interested in more of the military's stuff. Besides, the army makes most of it's money when it's touring anyway.
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 9:00 AM on December 17, 2009 [22 favorites]


I think it comes into the newly arisen category of warfare that can be termed "chickenshit asymmetry". It's only fitting that "insurgents" should find low cost ways of defeating these things.

Yeah, I'm having trouble with the big UNDERDOG uniforms U.S. troops are handing out to insurgents these days. I know people aren't supposed to be rooting for them, but... (even aside from the whole "defenders of wrongly invaded homeland" thing)
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 9:00 AM on December 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


Dude, this is a Cunning Plan. The next step is to start using drones that will lock in on the source of the unauthorized access and blow them up.

Then Norman Schwarzkopf will comes out of retirement to host an all new season of The Army's Bombers and Practical Jokes. The merchandising alone will pay for the next twenty years of this bloody, intractable conflict!
posted by robocop is bleeding at 9:00 AM on December 17, 2009


This really pulls me in two directions. The concerned good citizen in me doesn't want any military guys dying for no reason, abhors the idiot engineering that let this happen, and is iffy about the whole robot death from above skynet nature of drones. The console-jockey from the Sprawl part of me thinks this is awesome and hilarious. The Panther Moderns must be very amused that they pulled off this hack.
posted by Babblesort at 9:00 AM on December 17, 2009 [8 favorites]


Lt. Gen. David Deptula, who oversees the Air Force's unmanned aviation program, said some of the drones would employ a sophisticated new camera system called "Gorgon Stare,"

Mr. Stross to the CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN desk, paging Mr. Stross.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:03 AM on December 17, 2009 [18 favorites]


If they were REALLY smart they'd introduce a new encrypted output channel but keep the unprotected link open for disinformation.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:04 AM on December 17, 2009 [6 favorites]


The potential drone vulnerability lies in an unencrypted downlink between the unmanned craft and ground control. The U.S. government has known about the flaw since the U.S. campaign in Bosnia in the 1990s, current and former officials said. But the Pentagon assumed local adversaries wouldn't know how to exploit it, the officials said.

Obscurity is not a reliable form of long term security and assuming that someone won't learn how to exploit a technical weakness in the information age shows an astonishing naivete.

Broadcasting unencrypted video? This is one of those things, where if I saw it in a movie, I would scoff at the implausibility. And they keep claiming that it didn't interfere with any missions, how can they know that? Any valid additional intelligence they get could be considered an asset to them, even if it's something as mundane as "this is the resolution and zoom levels of the camera of an unmanned drone".
posted by quin at 9:04 AM on December 17, 2009


How many billions went into developing those things?

*eternal headdesk*
posted by EatTheWeak at 9:04 AM on December 17, 2009


I like that they're giving our weapons systems more honest names like "Reaper" rather than "Peacekeeper".
posted by Joe Beese at 9:06 AM on December 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


The first link refers to a "SkyGrabber" program, and SkyGrabber.com seems to be down now, which isn't surprising (search hits for the term "SkyGrabber" are "volcanic" according to Google Trends), but the Google cache tells you enough:
SkyGrabber is offline satellite internet downloader. It intercepts satellite data( movie, music, pictures ) that downloadind by other users and saves information in your hard disk. So, you'll get new movie, best music and funny pictures for free.

You don't have to keep an online internet connection. Just customize your satellite dish to selected satellite provider and start grabbing. SkyGrabber has simple and attractive GUI, powerful filter system and flexible settings. If you want to have newest software for free, SkyGrabber is your choice.

SkyGrabber features:

* Filtering information by the types of files ( mp3, avi, mpg и т.д. )
* Filtering information by IP, MAC addresses
* Simultaneous work on the Internet and grabbing
* The monitoring system resources
* Showing progress downloads
* Support Kazza, Gnutella
* Handling TCP, GPE, IP, MPE packages
* Handling HTTP responses (200, 206)
* Support dreamboxes
The articles only say insurgents are "intercept[ing] live video feeds," not actively taking control of the drones. Basically, they're capturing unencrypted satellite feeds, sounding vaguely akin to "pre-air" wild feed TV-rips.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:07 AM on December 17, 2009 [3 favorites]


cost $4.5 million apiece

Ah, yes, right.

*grafts face to palm*
posted by EatTheWeak at 9:10 AM on December 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


I'm glad they're working on encrypting these feeds now, but I'm staggered that this wasn't already part of the drone camera package. I'm just some prick from Washington and it seems like a matter of course to me that you'd want this footage as protected as is possible. How did this not occur to the Pentagon?
posted by EatTheWeak at 9:13 AM on December 17, 2009


If the insurgents can detect when a drone's in the area and hide, it suggests that a greater proportion of the attacks will have been directed onto civilians than otherwise.

Though I suppose just encrypting the signal might not make much practical difference in those terms: if the insurgents can detect the existence of a signal, they may be able to go into hiding regardless of whether they know the signal contents.

If they're storing large quantities of the data, I wonder if they're using it for aerial surveillance of their own, looking for the location of coalition or local government units or bases.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 9:14 AM on December 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


Wow, the Skygrabber website is down cold thanks to this.
posted by strixus at 9:17 AM on December 17, 2009


mccarty.tim: The sad thing is that I'm not surprised they got hacked. I'm more surprised the software to hack them costs money.

I was a little startled by the implication that hackers buy software.
posted by shakespeherian at 9:18 AM on December 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


I like that they're giving our weapons systems more honest names like "Reaper" rather than "Peacekeeper".

As an aside, a pretty strong case could be made that MX missiles were indeed peacekeepers. MAD was a great deterrent to getting into a protracted conventional war. Not that that really is a good status quo or anything. But, damn, I didn't realize how beefed up that Reaper thing is compared to the Predators. It can loiter fully loaded for 14 hours, and they openly call it a "hunter-killer". How clever.
posted by Burhanistan at 9:19 AM on December 17, 2009


One word: Broadcast. It means exactly that. Anybody that didn't predict this is foolish. Now, there may have been a mentality that it could only be listened to by governments, not by your average Tom, Dick, or Mohammed, but still....Moore's law, folks.

Of course, Moore's law is working for the military as well, allowing them to build supercomputers by purchasing game consoles.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 9:20 AM on December 17, 2009


I'm surprised the insurgents aren't using this in Pakistan as well, but I'm sure they will be soon, especially since we've warned the military that we'll be using drones more.
posted by homunculus at 9:23 AM on December 17, 2009


The article says they've known about this security hole since 1994, when the Predators debuted in Bosnia, but hoped no one would notice. Instead, they found hours of intercepted video on insurgent laptops both in Iraq and Afghanistan.
posted by msalt at 9:23 AM on December 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


I assume the article meant to say that they gained access to the predator drone using $26 software and a 5 kill killstreak.
posted by shmegegge at 9:24 AM on December 17, 2009 [7 favorites]


Just because the software has a price tag doesn't necessarily mean that any given person who uses it shelled out the payment.

It is possible the software was acquired in a way much like high seas bandits plundering a merchant ship.
posted by Babblesort at 9:24 AM on December 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


I suppose they could watch the feed right up to when the drone lands to get location of the U.S. troops. So the feed would probably be more useful to them than us.
posted by bhnyc at 9:24 AM on December 17, 2009


Okay, so, I work on unmanned vehicles for a (small) defense contractor. My sector (underwater) is pretty far behind the ground and air vehicles, but looking at what we're doing right now I can guess how this happened.

Scene: Mid-1990s Military-Industrial Complex.
Project manager: Woohoo! We just got bazillions in funding to build these unmanned aerial drones! Get to it, kids!
Engineer: Exciting! Hey, by the way, we can't encrypt any of this video, even though the DoD said they'd like it. It's a separate project in and of itself and would require much more time and money.
PM: What do you guys think? We are storing all our video in a proprietary format that would take your average engineer circa 1995 several hundred years to reverse-engineer.
DoD: Meh, change the requirements. We just want to get these things flying and see if we like them. Security through obscurity is good enough.

Scene: 2001.
DoD: Hey, you know those nifty drones we've been flying around for shits and giggles in minor conflicts with very little PR so the bad guys literally don't have time to know what hit them? WELL SHIT NOW WE NEED THOUSANDS OF THEM GO NOW. WHAT DO YOU MEAN, YOU WANT TO MAKE TECHNOLOGICAL IMPROVEMENTS? WE DON'T HAVE TIME FOR THAT! HAVE AN INDEFINITE QUANTITY PROCUREMENT CONTRACT!
Insurgents: kekeke

This is happening right now with underwater vehicles; just replace "video" with "sonar data." If those coconut-carrying octopi ever get around to organizing and invading, we'd better hope they don't have access to a SkyGrabber equivalent for unmanned subs.
posted by olinerd at 9:28 AM on December 17, 2009 [14 favorites]


"If they're storing large quantities of the data, I wonder if they're using it for aerial surveillance of their own, looking for the location of coalition or local government units or bases."

I wonder if cameras are shut down before entering the base. Seems unlikely.
posted by Mitheral at 9:29 AM on December 17, 2009


Interestingly the article talks about "stolen" and "pirated" (instead of just "intercepted") video. I guess that means the next step is to sic the RIAA/MPAA on them.

Actually, I'm thinking it's the other way around: By calling these terrorists who pirate video 'pirates,' we can now call non-terrorists who pirate video 'terrorists.' By my calculations, this tactic should reduce illegal downloads of music to 1997 levels by sometime shortly after the bankruptcy of BMG.
posted by kaibutsu at 9:30 AM on December 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


I suppose they could watch the feed right up to when the drone lands to get location of the U.S. troops. So the feed would probably be more useful to them than us.

Larger drones are typically launched from airbases and airfields--all of which you can be sure are known locations in Iraq. And pretty much all of them have pretty sharply defended perimeters so just knowing where bases are isn't much use to insurgents.
posted by Burhanistan at 9:33 AM on December 17, 2009


So, why did this happen in the first place? Are the military roboticists these days largely people used to working at the same companies to produce more mechanical things? Or is there such a demand that the programmers need to do a rush job? Considering how expensive the things are, you would think they'd work extra hard to look out for this kind of flaw. Can't there be senate hearings and all that over this sort of thing?
posted by mccarty.tim at 9:34 AM on December 17, 2009


>
That explains a lot. I was wondering what software company would risk a lawsuit by selling software specifically for hacking into a PMC's hardware. For one, that has to be against the DMCA, and PMCs have a lot of friends in high places in both domestic and foreign governments, and the name made it sound exactly like it was made for this job.

Decrypting satellite feeds makes a lot more sense. There was a movie made from satellite feeds of the Clinton/Bush election in 1992.
posted by mccarty.tim at 9:39 AM on December 17, 2009


I know there was an article about this right around the time the war in Iraq began. There was a guy who had intercepted the video and talked about how to do it on the internet. There may have been a sample video at one point.

I can't find the article now, damnit.
posted by fake at 9:44 AM on December 17, 2009


"Larger drones are typically launched from airbases and airfields--all of which you can be sure are known locations in Iraq. And pretty much all of them have pretty sharply defended perimeters so just knowing where bases are isn't much use to insurgents."

'Course if there is a weakness in that perimeter then regular aerial surveillance of the base would be useful in ferreting it out.
posted by Mitheral at 9:48 AM on December 17, 2009


According to the Google Cache of SkyGrabber, it actually sniffs satellite internet, data going to people's web-browsers and email software, not FTA mpeg video streams like satellite TV --

"It 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..."

Of COURSE it is used only for good, Russian software developer who wrote a program that sniffs other people's internet connections and archives 'interesting' portions of that data...
posted by AzraelBrown at 9:49 AM on December 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


'Course if there is a weakness in that perimeter then regular aerial surveillance of the base would be useful in ferreting it out.

It's not like the drones are doing detailed flyovers of US bases. I'm not an expert, but that angle of this story is a non-starter. US bases, strips, FOBs, and other stations are for the most part known commodities in Iraq. Insurgents go after patrols and other targets of opportunity rather than frontal attacks on bases.
posted by Burhanistan at 9:52 AM on December 17, 2009


Interestingly the article talks about "stolen" and "pirated" (instead of just "intercepted") video. I guess that means the next step is to sic the RIAA/MPAA on them.

Perhaps it would be more effective. Laywers can always find you.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:53 AM on December 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


But, I think it comes into the newly arisen category of warfare that can be termed "chickenshit asymmetry". It's only fitting that "insurgents" should find low cost ways of defeating these things.

Give it a couple years. Geeks are already building their own UAV planes and copters for cheap with off-the-shelf parts. Once the people we're fighting realize they don't need to strap a bomb to someone's chest, they can just tape it to a $250 RC plane and use their iPod to fly it into a military base or crowded market, game over. Or do strafing runs with a quadcopter

Just like in other human endeavors, the computing revolution is very rapidly driving down the cost and difficulty of killing lots of people. That is not a trend that favors governments over the people they want to oppress
posted by crayz at 9:54 AM on December 17, 2009 [7 favorites]


Give it a couple years. Geeks are already building their own UAV planes and copters for cheap with off-the-shelf parts. Once the people we're fighting realize they don't need to strap a bomb to someone's chest, they can just tape it to a $250 RC plane and use their iPod to fly it into a military base or crowded market, game over. Or do strafing runs with a quadcopter

Yeah, I've been dreading this, actually. It will be a brave new world soon enough. I think you'll see the US deploy some kind of hardened craft that can generate localized EMP bursts to knock homebrew robots out of service. It will be a rapidly evolving cat-and-mouse game that will see lots of bystanders get slaughtered.
posted by Burhanistan at 9:59 AM on December 17, 2009


What I find baffling is the completely nonplussed attitude of those asked to comment.
"There's a balance between pragmatics and sophistication," said Mike Wynne, Air Force Secretary from 2005 to 2008.
I don't disagree, but when you transmit information like this completely unencrypted, it's what some of us call an imbalance. Also, what the fuck is going on here?:
A senior defense official said that James Clapper, the Pentagon's intelligence chief, assessed the Iraq intercepts at the direction of Defense Secretary Robert Gates and concluded they represented a shortcoming to the security of the drone network.

"There did appear to be a vulnerability," the defense official said. "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."
How the hell can he make a statement like that with any degree of certainty? I'm loath to indulge in armchair military strategy, but I think it's a safe bet that insurgents aren't going to the trouble of capturing this footage in order to make a home video of 'Mahdi Army Martyrs'.
posted by jaffacakerhubarb at 10:03 AM on December 17, 2009


From the article: The difficulty, officials said, is that adding encryption to a network that is more than a decade old involves more than placing a new piece of equipment on individual drones. Instead, many components of the network linking the drones to their operators in the U.S., Afghanistan or Pakistan have to be upgraded to handle the changes. ... Today, the Air Force is buying hundreds of Reaper drones, a newer model, whose video feeds could be intercepted in much the same way.

I love how the same people who yell loudest about government bureaucratic inefficiency are the biggest supporters of the military. No contradiction there, no SIR.
posted by msalt at 10:09 AM on December 17, 2009


And once again, the West "misunderestimates" the mid-East.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:34 AM on December 17, 2009


And once again, the West "misunderestimates" the mid-East.

That's kind of a broad and inflamed brush there. I'd characterize it thusly: certain facets of the US military are loath to admit culpability and are not eager to revise hardware while downplaying risks involved with certain insurgents obtaining certain data feeds. How's that? It's better to not always try to be so profound.
posted by Burhanistan at 10:50 AM on December 17, 2009


"There did appear to be a vulnerability," the defense official said. "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."

How the hell can he make a statement like that with any degree of certainty? I'm loath to indulge in armchair military strategy, but I think it's a safe bet that insurgents aren't going to the trouble of capturing this footage in order to make a home video of 'Mahdi Army Martyrs'.


I'd imagine he means that there has been no harm done yet, and perhaps that the information gathered is unlikely to be of much use. Knowing that there are guard stations here, here, and here doesn't do you much good unless you have the available manpower and resources to exploit that information.
Or maybe he's just trying to put a good face on it all for the media.
posted by AdamCSnider at 10:59 AM on December 17, 2009


But, I think it comes into the newly arisen category of warfare that can be termed "chickenshit asymmetry". It's only fitting that "insurgents" should find low cost ways of defeating these things.

The use of Drones is assassination at best, random slaughter of civilians in order to accomplish an assassination at worst. (I think they killed 600 other people to get that Pakistani Al Qaeda leader, according to the New Yorker).

Honestly, it's terrorism on our part and completely immoral. If another terror attack were to hit the Capitol or the White House tomorrow, we really wouldn't even have much ground to stand on to condemn it.
posted by drjimmy11 at 11:00 AM on December 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'd imagine he means that there has been no harm done yet, and perhaps that the information gathered is unlikely to be of much use. Knowing that there are guard stations here, here, and here doesn't do you much good unless you have the available manpower and resources to exploit that information.


Probably the only real "danger" to US forces that could be ascribed to Iraqi insurgents obtaining video feed of these drones is that they could alert potential targets to run for cover, thereby denying the drones a kill. That target could live to fight another day. Otherwise, the issue of them watching the flight path back into the airfield or base is really not much of any risk as the balance of power stands today.
posted by Burhanistan at 11:04 AM on December 17, 2009


I keep thinking "NERDS!!"
posted by Ogre Lawless at 11:05 AM on December 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


I love how the same people who yell loudest about government bureaucratic inefficiency are the biggest supporters of the military. No contradiction there, no SIR.

Really? Because I'm all for government health care, but also really interested in making sure said health care is as efficient and has as little red tape attached as is feasible. Similarly, I think there are plenty of people who want a large, powerful and efficiently run military. I personally think that the first two are really, really hard to combine with the last, but that's just me....
posted by AdamCSnider at 11:05 AM on December 17, 2009


From my defense contracting experience, olinerd has it right.

as a side note, part of the reason military hardware has worse processors than commercial hardware is the mil-spec requirements the processors have to meet. The latest intel to role off the line probably can't handle -40 to +50 C, with heavy vibration, dust, 95% humidity. Instead, the commercial grade parts come out first, then industrial grade, and then maybe mil-spec parts.
posted by garlic at 11:08 AM on December 17, 2009


my first thought belies my own grasp of any claim to intelligence, but on reading the FPP I clicked in to say these immortal words:

LOL
posted by infini at 11:09 AM on December 17, 2009


Drone Pilot Burnout is an awesome name for something.
posted by Artw at 11:38 AM on December 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


I've talked to someone who has worked with these things (drones) and said all communication is secure and encrypted, and uses "beam" communication(? line of site?) and to intercept from drone to satellite they would need something that's flying higher than the drone and directly between the drone and the satellite, and the same for the satellites to earth. Also that the commercial and military use completely different systems and there's no way that skygrabber could grab a military feed like that.

I have no clue what it might be, he thinks it's political stuntery of some sort. What the cause for such a thing would be who knows, but he believes the tech is quite sound.
posted by symbioid at 11:46 AM on December 17, 2009


So, you hack a drone's video output. What does that really give you?

Unless the feed includes GPS or telemetry data, you don't know where the drone is, or even what it's looking at. It could be your compound. It could be similar buildings on the other side of town.

OK, let's say it IS your compound (or you recognize it as someone you're allied with). What are you going do? You can't shoot the damn thing down. Will you just shriek and run outside? Out in the open where you can be recognized and targeted? Or perhaps you'll just sit tight and do nothing? Well, that's what you're already doing...

Yeah, it's a failure. But essentially shouting "YOO-HOO, WE CAN SEE YOU," and backing it up with video, is not exactly a tragedy.

Now, if you can hack a control feed ... then you'd really have something...
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 11:48 AM on December 17, 2009


Strategically, this isn't at all shocking. The more we use something like drones, the more the enemy will focus on them looking for vulnerabilities.

I have to agree with Burhanistan that this isn't per se anything that directly puts US/NATO troops in harm's way. It would be quite unlikely that this could be effectively used real-time in a firefight, and at best, to the limited extent that drones are used to support ground movement (versus their intelligence/scouting roles and the CIA-type Hellfire hunter-killer role), might help educate militants on how the US approaches targets and so forth. So I think the threat here is overblown as such.

Indirectly, I can see this telling Iraqi or Afghan bad actors what sorts of capability to see in the dark these have or what sorts of equipment or hides are generally visible to it. The most direct utility is probably in seeing particular zones of activity and knowing that these should be abandoned at least temporarily. So it helps them fade away and live to fight another day. In that sense it helps the guerrilla whose job is to avoid direct contact with the enemy as much as possible, while the counter-insurgent army's job is to flush them out.

Ultimately the value here is really to educate us once again on how limited a technological advantage is in asymmetrical warfare.
posted by dhartung at 11:49 AM on December 17, 2009


Give it a couple years. Geeks are already building their own UAV planes and copters for cheap with off-the-shelf parts. Once the people we're fighting realize they don't need to strap a bomb to someone's chest, they can just tape it to a $250 RC plane and use their iPod to fly it into a military base or crowded market, game over. Or do strafing runs with a quadcopter

I'm pretty sure C-RAM systems can take care of those...at least at the FOB and Base level. Still could be a very real threat to innocent people in the cities.
posted by C17H19NO3 at 12:03 PM on December 17, 2009


If the video feeds from the Predator drones are broadcast unencrypted, what else is broadcast in a similar manner on manned aircraft, or from other assets (outposts, patrols) that upload video via satellite? I am willing to bet that it's not just the Predators that have this flaw...and strategically, what can be gained from the intercepted videos is knowledge of what their movements look like from above - it's safe to assume that the insurgents already know they are being watched, so the value in these intercepted videos is about getting better at hiding in plain sight, blending in with the locals. What you think you look like from 2000 feet may not be what you actually look like to a Predator's cameras (heat signatures, etc.)...

And exactly how did this information get leaked in the first place? Seems like the sort of intel that the Air Force would want to keep under wraps for as long as possible, or at least distort.
posted by piedrasyluz at 12:03 PM on December 17, 2009


To be sure, the number of drones flying over Pakistan is low enough that it wouldn't be all that inconvenient to make some cell phone calls and get all the leadership out of their compounds when a drone is seen crossing the border. If you can see the drone by video intercept, all the better.
posted by kaibutsu at 12:10 PM on December 17, 2009


In other news, you just hacked into the local radio station by turning on your transistor radio.

When talking about free-to-air broadcasts like unencrypted transmitted video feeds, I don't know if you can even call it "intercepted", let alone "hacked into". The insurgents received broadcasts from the US drones.
posted by -harlequin- at 12:17 PM on December 17, 2009 [3 favorites]


Like Kadin2048 says, this is legacy hardware designed in the 1980s & built in the 90s, before encrypted video feeds were feasible. Only the oldest, unarmed UAVs, Global Hawk & Dark Star are vulnerable. It was a design choice which was reasonable at the time. It simply wasn't possible to build encryption into the system, both computationally & operationally - it's bad enough trying to remotely fly an airplane with over a second latency in the controls, but try adding early 1990s-speed encryption into the loop & you can forget it. Plus there was no COTS software for doing this even on the horizon back then, so it wasn't part of the threat model. Yes it's bad that this is possible but it's neither as bad as it's made to sound nor was it a naive design.
posted by scalefree at 12:35 PM on December 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


Wow, so it turns out that all our base really DO belong to them.
posted by Afroblanco at 12:50 PM on December 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


this is legacy hardware designed in the 1980s & built in the 90s, before encrypted video feeds were feasible.

Given the timeframe, any encryption algorithm they might have used would probably be easily broken now. And even if they had used encryption it would be just as difficult to replace it with a modern, more secure algorithm as it would be to add encryption to a device that lacks it. What the military needs is to get products "to market" faster so they're not obsolete before they're launched.
posted by tommasz at 1:47 PM on December 17, 2009


"chickenshit asymmetry". It's only fitting that "insurgents" should find low cost ways of defeating these things.

------

The use of Drones is assassination at best, random slaughter of civilians in order to accomplish an assassination at worst. ...

Honestly, it's terrorism on our part... If another terror attack were to hit the Capitol or the White House tomorrow, we really wouldn't even have much ground to stand on to condemn it.


So war can only be fought in a way where in order to take out X amt of the enemy you have to expose X number of your own troops in the name of fairness? Asymetrical warfare is as old as warfare.

In a war that is 100% just, its completely justifiable if the "good guys" have an extreme advantage over the "bad guys."

(Now obviously no war (or side) is 100% just, but I think some of the criticism is a little strange)
posted by rosswald at 1:48 PM on December 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


i don't think "listening to unencrypted signals that are passing through the air" qualifies as "hacking".

and it's been a known vulnerability for how long? way to try security thru obscurity.

so now they can find out where the drones are going, what they are capable of, what what things are of interest to the US.

really, what could possibly go wrong?
posted by rmd1023 at 2:00 PM on December 17, 2009


So war can only be fought in a way where in order to take out X amt of the enemy you have to expose X number of your own troops in the name of fairness? Asymetrical warfare is as old as warfare.

In a war that is 100% just, its completely justifiable if the "good guys" have an extreme advantage over the "bad guys."


I don't think it's about "fairness". If you look at the history of snipers -- ok, at various times they were reviled, but still -- it's a different criticism than what's being talked about here, because you're still looking through that scope, carefully picking your target.

Here, indirect observation leads to deaths of innocents/civillians on the way to getting your man. Various bombing tactics have followed the same kind of calculus, in that limiting the exposure of your men results in X fewer casualties for us and Y greater casualties of civillians. So how many innocent lives are worth one American? 10? 100? 1000? Sure, innocents will die in a war zone, regardless, but exposure and precision usually go hand in hand. Pretending this is about a "fair fight" is missing the issue, or avoiding it.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 2:17 PM on December 17, 2009


"Unless the feed includes GPS or telemetry data, you don't know where the drone is, or even what it's looking at. It could be your compound. It could be similar buildings on the other side of town."

At least in Afghanistan where the horizon isn't a bowling ball all you need is local knowledge and the occasional glimpse of the horizon to figure out where the drone is located. I'd imagine that even in built up areas of Iraq the terrain and buildings would narrow down transmission locations. And it's not like the drones are in random locations; they'll be flying for the most part where the enemy is located. If you can follow along in real time then you can do heading and landmark navigation pretty easily.

"this is legacy hardware designed in the 1980s & built in the 90s, before encrypted video feeds were feasible."

HBO was using VideoCypher II on C-Band (Big Ugly Dishes) transmission from 1986 and the admittedly weak VCI was in use before that. A one time pad encryption of a digital video transmission would be trivial to implement and wouldn't require any kind of serious processing horsepower.
posted by Mitheral at 2:23 PM on December 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


Durn Bronzefist -- I don't think this is a UAV issue. Bomb's dropped from manned aircraft are of similar size or larger, and of similar accuracy hitting what they're aimed at. The person looking at the targeting video and pulling the trigger being in the plane over the target vs. in a trailer in the desert looking at the targeting video and pulling the trigger doesn't seem like it will make any difference.
posted by garlic at 2:23 PM on December 17, 2009


Somebody comments that they are amazed that it cost money to hack the drones, and after reading sever articles on the subject so am I. Seems like if they had considered a quick linux download and a few hours work they could have saved themselves $26 to the enemy. In all seriousness this highlights a huge underestimate of the type of people we are dealing with in Iraq. No encryption? please this is the 21st century, it is a bare minimum.
posted by andrewnixon0 at 2:27 PM on December 17, 2009 [3 favorites]


(+200)

"[DEM] 0b0nky K0ng" Destroyed UAV!
posted by hamida2242 at 3:05 PM on December 17, 2009


Here's a frightening thought: What makes you think the controls are encrypted if the video feeds are not?

And does it really take the support of a government to sniff unencrypted data? I don't think so, but the only support for any Iranian backing is that we didn't think the insurgents were this "sophisticated." As stated above, this doesn't even qualify as hacking, much less piracy.
posted by mike_bling at 3:05 PM on December 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


People, this is where 70% of your taxes go: to completely incompetent assholes.

Support the troops: stop paying Lockheed.

Note, it's not just the drones, but most military planes!
posted by Freen at 3:06 PM on December 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


The person looking at the targeting video and pulling the trigger being in the plane over the target vs. in a trailer in the desert looking at the targeting video and pulling the trigger doesn't seem like it will make any difference.

Maybe I wasn't clear -- I completely agree. That is why I talked about the calculus of bombing tactics. The most accurate way to hit your targets? Send men in. It's also the way to sustain the most casualties. On the heels of a comment about 600 people killed by drone to take out an Al Qaeda leader, I didn't think we were talking about "smart bombs" as the only alternative. But I think we need to differentiate between complaints (and strawmen) of "fairness" and complaints of inaccuracy and unacceptable civilian losses -- whatever those may be.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 3:55 PM on December 17, 2009


The most accurate way to hit your targets? Send men in.

I'm not sure that's true. Look at the current efforts to attack safe havens in North Waziristan. If you sent in troops, they would have to fight their way through many miles of territory (as Pakistan has done in South Waziristan) just to get to the bases, and I'd bet many more civilians as well as military would die.

I'm not sure what to think about the criticism that it's assassination. Are military leaders (not including heads of state) considered fair game? Can you "assassinate" a colonel or general, or is that rule only about civilian leaders?
posted by msalt at 5:26 PM on December 17, 2009


That's kind of a broad and inflamed brush there.

I don't think so. The video isn't encrypted because, "hey, who'd ever expect anyone to be able to grab the signal, and all the more so when you're fighting a bunch of primitive tribal peoples."

Same as pretty much ever judgement made about these wars: assume that Iraq is a pushover, hell, "we'll be out in three months." Assume that the Afghani's will welcome us with open arms.

Turns out the "enemy" isn't such a bunch of push-over primitives after all. Duh.
posted by five fresh fish at 5:38 PM on December 17, 2009


Turns out the "enemy" isn't such a bunch of push-over primitives after all. Duh.

Lol. Im not going to give the engineers of this system points for anything, but I have to believe that China, Russia and a lot of other countries came to mind when they built this. Im not convinced the racism your projecting onto these people as an explanation is accurate.
posted by rosswald at 5:43 PM on December 17, 2009


Wasteful Spending By Private Contractors In Afghanistan Climbs To $1 Billion
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 6:46 PM on December 17, 2009


I have to believe that China, Russia and a lot of other countries came to mind when they built this

I hope so (which makes the lack of even rudimentary encryption even more baffling). OTOH, I have a hard time believing they intended to use these against sophisticated enemies, all of whom I would expect could take 'em out of the air fairly effortlessly.
posted by five fresh fish at 7:05 PM on December 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


The video isn't encrypted because, "hey, who'd ever expect anyone to be able to grab the signal, and all the more so when you're fighting a bunch of primitive tribal peoples."

The video isn't encrypted because secure key distribution & key management are Hard Problems when your consumers are as diverse as unit commanders, CIA field officers & PMC elements. And that's even before you get into operational logistics questions of what to do when one one consumer reports key compromise necessitating revocation while another has a time-critical operation going on that rules it out. Racism has nothing to do with it.
posted by scalefree at 8:14 PM on December 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


I can see where you get the "racist" overtone from. I don't mean they were thinking in a racist way. Just that they underestimated the resources of the Afghani tribes. And I'm not talking complex security; nothing more complex than your basic GameBox. The article claims they're doing this trick for stupid-cheap. Surely it would have been worth using the kind of crap-ass security that would require them to spend 10 or 100x as much.

It's not like your front door lock actually makes your house secure. If someone wants in, they're gonna be in. But you at least make an effort to deter the easily defeated.

Unless letting the enemy have full streaming access to the video doesn't matter. In which case there's no point in putting any effort into protecting it.
posted by five fresh fish at 8:56 PM on December 17, 2009


I can see where you get the "racist" overtone from. I don't mean they were thinking in a racist way. Just that they underestimated the resources of the Afghani tribes.

I think I reacted poorly to the way it was worded, but the deeper point is that the oldest UAVs were designed for use in conflicts across the globe, well before Afghanistan became the flashpoint. They were first put into operation in Bosnia, hardly a tribal culture.

It's not like your front door lock actually makes your house secure. If someone wants in, they're gonna be in. But you at least make an effort to deter the easily defeated.

There's a paradox in infosec that says that poor security can be worse than no security because it gives you a false sense of complacency. If you know something is vulnerable you'll pay more attention to its weaknesses, which can have a positive compensatory effect; but if it has just minimal protection you'll tend to attribute greater strength to it than it deserves. In other words if you know the door has no lock you'll be more careful about leaving the house unguarded or leaving valuables inside than if you have a cheap lock that's easily jimmied.
posted by scalefree at 9:01 PM on December 19, 2009


Bruce Schneier makes some of my points & a few of his own on the subject.
posted by scalefree at 1:48 PM on December 24, 2009


« Older It may be a joke to some people (previously), but ...   |   FedEx Kinkos Won’t Print Our C... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments