Iraqi militants have used inexpensive, off-the-rack software “to intercept live video feeds from U.S. Predator drones,” the Wall Street Journal reported Dec. 17. While the Pentagon confirms the hacking of the drone feeds–which are unencrypted–military officials claim there is no proof the militant hackers have been able to alter the flights of the drones or otherwise disrupt the drone missions.
The military is increasingly depending on the unmanned drones as a vital element of the fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The drones allow the U.S. military to “monitor and stalk” enemies while minimizing loss of American lives. The hacks, though, could offset the Pentagon’s element of surprise.
The Wall Street Journal said, “U.S. military personnel in Iraq discovered the problem late last year when they apprehended a Shiite militant whose laptop contained files of intercepted drone video feeds. In July, the U.S. military found pirated drone video feeds on other [militants’] laptops.” Most surprising, though, was the revelation that the hacks had been accomplished with off-the-shelf software programs such as SkyGrabber, which is available for under $30.
Pentagon officials said they have worked to prevent the hacks by encrypting all drone video feeds from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“There did appear to be a vulnerability,” an unnamed defense official told the Wall Street Journal. “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.”
Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula, deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, told the Associated Press, “Any time you have a system that is operated through command links and that broadcasts information using omnidirectional signals, those are subject to listening and exploitation. One of the ways we deal with that is encrypting signals.”
SkyGrabber intercepts satellite data downloaded by other users and saves information to a hard disk. As news of the drone intercepts hit the headlines Dec. 17, SkyGrabber raced into the top 10 of Google search terms. The site was overwhelmed by traffic and was frequently unavailable.