There's a great brouhaha brewing about the lack of security of US surveillance footage from unmanned aerial vehicles and other sources. The Wall Street Journal reports:
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.
Senior defense and intelligence officials said Iranian-backed insurgents intercepted the video feeds by taking advantage of an unprotected communications link in some of the remotely flown planes' systems. Shiite fighters in Iraq used software programs such as SkyGrabber -- available for as little as $25.95 on the Internet -- to regularly capture drone video feeds, according to a person familiar with reports on the matter.US MQ-1 Predator UAV (drone)
U.S. officials say there is no evidence that militants were able to take control of the drones or otherwise interfere with their flights. Still, the intercepts could give America's enemies battlefield advantages by removing the element of surprise from certain missions and making it easier for insurgents to determine which roads and buildings are under U.S. surveillance.
The drone intercepts mark the emergence of a shadow cyber war within the U.S.-led conflicts overseas. They also point to a potentially serious vulnerability in Washington's growing network of unmanned drones, which have become the American weapon of choice in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The Obama administration has come to rely heavily on the unmanned drones because they allow the U.S. to safely monitor and stalk insurgent targets in areas where sending American troops would be either politically untenable or too risky.
The stolen video feeds also indicate that U.S. adversaries continue to find simple ways of counteracting sophisticated American military technologies.
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 militant laptops, leading some officials to conclude that militant groups trained and funded by Iran were regularly intercepting feeds.
. . .
Some of the most detailed evidence of intercepted feeds has been discovered in Iraq, but adversaries have also intercepted drone video feeds in Afghanistan, according to people briefed on the matter. 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.
There's more at the link.
Wired magazine has since learned that the problem isn't confined to UAV's alone.
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.
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.
The military is working to plug the hole — introducing new ROVER models that communicate without spilling its secrets. “Recognizing the potential for future exploitation the Air Force has been working aggressively to encrypt these ROVER downlink signals. It is my understanding that we have already developed the technical encryption solutions and are fielding them,” the Air Force officer notes.
But it won’t be easy. An unnamed Pentagon official tells reporters that “this is an old issue that’s been addressed.” Air Force officers contacted by Danger Room disagree, strongly.
“This is not a trivial solution,” one officer observes. “Almost every fighter/bomber/ISR [intelligence surveillance reconnaissance] platform we have in theater has a ROVER downlink. All of our Tactical Air Control Parties and most ground TOCs [tactical operations centers] have ROVER receivers. We need to essentially fix all of the capabilities before a full transition can occur and in the transition most capabilities need to be dual-capable (encrypted and unencrypted).”
Which presents all sorts of problems. Let’s say a drone or an A-10 is sent to cover soldiers under fire. If the aircraft has an encrypted transmitter and the troops have an unencrypted ROVER receiver, that surveillance footage can’t be passed down to the soldiers who need it most.
“Can these feeds be encrypted with 99.5 percent chance of no compromise? Absolutely! Can you guarantee that all the encryption keys make it down to the lowest levels in the Army or USMC [United States Marine Corps]? No way,” adds a second Air Force officer, familiar with the ROVER issue. “Do they trust their soldiers/Marines with these encryption keys? Don’t know that.”
Again, there's more at the link.
I can't say I'm surprised at the technological sophistication of the insurgents - but for Heaven's sake, didn't someone in the US military hierarchy say to themselves, "You know, if we're using off-the-shelf software and hardware to provide solutions, surely our enemies can use the same off-the-shelf software and hardware to obtain the same information from us?"
Oh, well . . . I'd sooner the problem was discovered in a low-intensity, low-technology war against insurgents than in a high-intensity, high-technology war against a really capable opponent! Hopefully, by the time the latter contingency becomes real, we'll have fixed the problem.