Dec 17 2009
Hacking can be bad, but what happened in Iraq with the hacking of US drones is not nearly as threatening as the drama queens in the news make it out to be:
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.
U.S. officials say there is no evidence that militants were able to take control of the drones or otherwise interfere with their flights.
This is definitely right up my ally (Command, Control, Communications and Information, or C3I). In many robotic systems (be they military drones or NASA spacecraft) there are two communications paths. One is the high rate ‘payload’ data downlink (broadcast only from the platform). The other are the command and control links, which can use various and multiple layers of security. That’s as far as I am going to go into these links, but needless to say the command and control links cannot be hacked by a few dollars of radio shack equipment.
This story is all about the video on the payload downlink.
When we have to deal with large amounts of data, as we do with imaging and video, we tend to remove security layers to get more data through the RF pipe. We only do this if there is no risk to the mission or the assets, and there is a huge return on clarity.
In video and imaging increases in resolution = increases in data. As all you digital camera users know, the more mega pixels the better the picture and the more you can blow it up.
Our US drone fleet is fairly young, but it does have its aging queens still in service. The fact only ‘some’ of the drones have this weakness means this can be corrected – and quickly. But to actually take advantage of this video stream you have to know:
- Where it is coming from: the video probably does not have the necessary ‘telemetry’ transmitted with it, which means the images could be coming from anywhere.
- When the image was taken – basically not all images need be real time.
- Be able to act on 1 and 2
The fact is by the time someone could unravel 1 and 2, the information is stale and of no use.
Clearly the first response we can take is to put the security back on the video downlinks, reducing our capability a bit. This means either less clarity or more delay, but nothing drastic.
The reporting by the media on the magic of modern communications is painfully embarrassing. It reminds me of that stupid magical router in last seasons ’24’ – which was incredibly hard to ignore and still get the feeling of pending doom. It was like combining Bugs Bunny with Jack Bower and still trying to make the 24 concept fly.
In this case folks, don’t let the technical ignorance of the media drama queens make you too concerned.