Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics
Sharing information with the enemy in Iraq, Afghanistan
U.S. military commanders on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan are not the only ones watching live video feeds of the battle zone from unmanned Predator surveillance planes. The militants too have been looking at the same images thanks to an off-the-shelf software that allowed them to hack into the data feed from the drones.
“Skygrabber”, originally designed to allow customers to download songs and movies off the Internet, costs barely $26 . It allowed insurgents to tap into the overhead video feeds from the million-dollar surveillance planes, the Wall Street Journal reported recently.
U.S. forces became aware of it only after they captured a Shiite militia member in Iraq, whose laptop had files of the pirated footage saved on it.
While most of the breach seems to have taken place in Iraq, adversaries have also intercepted drone video feeds in Afghanistan, the newspaper said, citing unnamed officials. These intercept techniques could be employed in other locations where the U.S. is using pilotless planes, such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, they said. One more example of how America’s enemies have found simple ways to counter its sophisticated military technology.
The Pentagon has since closed the breach, defence officials said, but the question experts are asking is how come it was so easy to penetrate the communications systems. Brookings’ P.W. Singer who has written a book “Wired for War: the Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century” says one reason is the rapid proliferation of the unmanned systems in U.S. warfare. Back in 2003, when the United States invaded Iraq there were only a handful of these ‘eyes in the skies” and zero on the ground in the invasion force.
Today, there are more than 7,000 in the air, ranging from Predator to the tiny ones that can fit in a soldier’s backpack. Most of these systems were not encrypted as pressure increased to push them out as fast as possible. “There was a war on, and these unmanned systems were proving to be far more useful to our troops than what the regular Pentagon acquisitions process had been providing,” he says.
In fact, the problem of the relatively open video feeds had been known for a while, he says. Indeed, back during U.S. operations in the Balkans it was discovered that just about anyone in Eastern Europe with a satellite dish could watch live overhead footage of U.S. Special Operations forces going out on raids of suspected war criminals. “One joker commented that it was harder to tap into the Disney Channel.”
Singer says it will be a long, expensive process to insulate the unmanned systems from hackers. There are also worries that layering the encryption on top of the system software will slow down the communications and make them harder for users to access at once.
Some experts say that it’s not just unmanned drones that are vulnerable, but the whole range of U.S. military aircraft.
Noah Shachtman writes in Danger Room: “Tapping into drones’ video feeds was just the start. The U.S. military’s primary system for bringing overhead surveillance down to soldiers and Marines on the ground is also vulnerable to electronic interception, multiple military sources tell Danger Room.”
“That means militants have the ability to see through the eyes of all kinds of combat aircraft — from traditional fighters and bombers to unmanned spy planes. The problem is in the process of being addressed. But for now, an enormous security breach is even larger than previously thought.”