What Were They Thinking?

by wjw on December 21, 2009

So it seems that our Predator drones, on which we depend for so much intelligence and air-to-ground support in Afghanistan, have been using unencrypted communications. Which have been intercepted by Serbs, Iraqi insurgents, and probably the Taliban and al-Qaeda. (Because, y’know, a Western-educated multimillionaire like Osama just couldn’t possibly understand how a satellite dish works.)

The fact that a sophisticated, multi-million-dollar aerial surveillance system could be compromised so easily because of a fundamental security oversight is stunning, several security analysts said.

“Frankly, this is shocking to me,” said Ira Winkler, president of the Internet Security Advisors Group. (Winkler is also the author of Spies Among Us and a Computerworld columnist.) “You have one of the most critical weapon systems in the most critical regions transmitting intelligence data unencrypted,” Winkler said.

In order to intercept these communications, you require (1) a satellite dish [now I have a use for my old one!], and (2) a copy of a $26 Russian software tool called SkyGrabber, which is designed to help people in remote Russian locations (there being few other kind) to access satellite TV and Internet.

“Those sorts of assumptions always get us in trouble,” said Lewis, who earlier this year led a group that developed a set of cybersecurity recommendations for the White House. “You can be sure that the insurgents weren’t the only folks watching the feeds,” he said.

The insurgents have not, so far as we know, actually succeeded in seizing control of a Predator. (Though of course you always have to wonder when a Hellfire supposedly targeting the al-Qaeda leadership blows up a Muslim wedding instead.)

The Air Force has known about this for ten years! And done nothing! (The CIA drones flying out of Pakistan apparently encrypt all transmissions, showing that the CIA know at least a little about elementary communications security.)

But wait! There’s more! Not only are the Predator drones vulnerable, so are all our fighters and bombers!

The military initially developed the Remotely Operated Video Enhanced Receiver, or ROVER, in 2002. The idea was let troops on the ground download footage from Predator drones and AC-130 gunships as it was being taken. Since then, nearly every airplane in the American fleet — from F-16 and F/A-18 fighters to A-10 attack planes to Harrier jump jets to B-1B bombers has been outfitted with equipment that lets them transmit to ROVERs. Thousands of ROVER terminals have been distributed to troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But those early units were “fielded so fast that it was done with an unencrypted signal. It could be both intercepted (e.g. hacked into) and jammed,” e-mails an Air Force officer with knowledge of the program. In a presentation last month before a conference of the Army Aviation Association of America, a military official noted that the current ROVER terminal “receives only unencrypted L, C, S, Ku [satellite] bands.”

So the same security breach that allowed insurgent to use satellite dishes and $26 software to intercept drone feeds can be used the tap into the video transmissions of any plane.

Sure is lucky we’re fighting a bunch of unsophisticated tribal know-nothings, because otherwise, y’know, we could be in trouble.

mazianni December 21, 2009 at 2:54 pm

I've read that Predator drones are already in use in parts of the U.S. Southwest. There are plans to put more to use in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, looking for smugglers.

It appears that video can be intercepted from each of these as well. Even the latest Reaper drone is susceptible.

Shouldn't be long before video shows up on YouTube, either from the drones used by border guards or from drones used by the military.

I suspect much of the video is going to be boring to amateurs, but may prove of interest to educated analysts.

halojones-fan December 21, 2009 at 5:29 pm

People like Marine Gen. Cartwright decided that encrypted signals were too expensive to buy, because it was more important to buy bombproof trucks instead. And, y'know, it's kind of hard to argue with that assertion.

Of course, we could buy both, but it's more important to give lots and lots of money to old people as a reward for being old.

john_appel December 21, 2009 at 5:47 pm

Halojones-fan: We weren't buying the bombproof vehicles at the time this was first deployed, so I think your causal chain may be broken…

This kind of thing simply doesn't surprise me that much anymore. It's going to take the generational culture change that will bring tech-savvy officers into command positions for this kind of thing to no longer be routine. Note that there's a similar process that needs to take place in the business world as well.

dubjay December 22, 2009 at 3:56 am

Well yeah, HJF, the Predator and its comlink does predate the Iraq war and the need for MRAPs.

Also, the Predator belongs to the Air Force and presumably draws from a different budget than the Marines.

Which doesn't mean that, at some point, the Air Force didn't decide they had more important things to do than SECURE THE COMMUNICATIONS OF EVERY COMBAT AIRCRAFT IN THEIR INVENTORY.

I'm sure that whatever superceded that project, it was really, really important.

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halojones-fan December 31, 2009 at 4:27 am

A single TSAT would have provided enough secure bandwidth to handle the entire US drone fleet, including the drones we aren't supposed to know about, and they could all have sent real-time FMV to any point on the globe. But guys with guns can ride around in bombproof trucks and guys-with-guns are much more macho and asskick than a bunch of whizbang geeky blue-suiter satellite things.

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