American Drone Aircraft Video Feed Intercepted by Iranian-backed Hackers in Iraq

The Wall Street Journal announces that US pilotless drones patrolling the skies of Iraq and Afghanistan beam down their video feeds in clear. They use no encryption and anyone can just point their dish at the transponding satellite to “grab” the feed. A nifty piece of software invented in Ukraine by a hacker who found satellite TV subscriptions too expensive, allows anyone to record the feed on a PC, store it or further distribute it. A laptop recently captured in Iraq indicated that some Iranian backed militants have used the Ukrainian freeloading technology to monitor US military drones and possibly to avoid some of their attacks. Many keep asking why encryption has not been used as a standard operating procedure. It looks like the underlying technology is a decade old and it might be that the chips and the software involved are either too underpowered or slow to support real time encryption. American military commanders knew of this vulnerability from the very beginning, but have hoped that the Middle Eastern militants would be too ignorant to exploit it. They were, of course, wrong.

Further reading.

The Guardian: SkyGrabber is a simple enough concept: grab the signals that spill from a satellite broadcast (or even narrowcast), aimed from a satellite towards a specific location, and turn them into TV feeds you can look at. Or as the website puts it: “You don’t have to keep an online internet connection. Just customise your satellite dish to selected satellite provider and start grabbing.”


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.

MQ-1L Predator UAV armed with AGM-114 Hellfire...
Image via Wikipedia

In the summer 2009 incident, the military found “days and days and hours and hours of proof” that the feeds were being intercepted and shared with multiple extremist groups, the person said. “It is part of their kit now.”Officials stepped up efforts to prevent insurgents from intercepting video feeds after the July incident. 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. Additional concerns remain about the vulnerability of the communications signals to electronic jamming, though there’s no evidence that has occurred, said people familiar with reports on the matter.

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Sorin Adam Matei

Sorin Adam Matei - Professor of Communication at Purdue University - studies the relationship between information technology and social groups. He published papers and articles in Journal of Communication, Communication Research, Information Society, and Foreign Policy. He is the author or co-editor of several books. The most recent is Structural differentation in social media. He also co-edited Ethical Reasoning in Big Data,Transparency in social media and Roles, Trust, and Reputation in Social Media Knowledge Markets: Theory and Methods (Computational Social Sciences) , all three the product of the NSF funded KredibleNet project. Dr. Matei's teaching portfolio includes online interaction, and online community analytics and development classes. His teaching makes use of a number of software platforms he has codeveloped, such as Visible Effort . Dr. Matei is also known for his media work. He is a former BBC World Service journalist whose contributions have been published in Esquire and several leading Romanian newspapers. In Romania, he is known for his books Boierii Mintii (The Mind Boyars), Idolii forului (Idols of the forum), and Idei de schimb (Spare ideas).

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