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Belmont Club

Pirates of the airwaves

December 17th, 2009 - 1:18 pm

Wired described how Shi’ite insurgents have been able to intercept US drone downlinks by simply pointing some satellite dishes up and soaking up the unencrypted transmissions. All they had to do next was find some commercially available software to view it.

“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,” Wall Street Journal reports. “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.”

How’d the militants manage to get access to such secret data? Basically by pointing satellite dishes up, and waiting for the drone feeds to pour in. According to the Journal, militants have exploited a weakness: The data links between the drone and the ground control station were never encrypted. Which meant that pretty much anyone could tap into the overhead surveillance that many commanders feel is America’s most important advantage in its two wars. Pretty much anyone could intercept the feeds of the drones that are the focal point for the secret U.S. war in Pakistan.

Using cheap, downloadable programs like SkyGrabber, militants were apparently able to watch and record the video feed — and potentially be tipped off when U.S. and coalition forces are stalking them. The $26 software was originally designed to let users download movies and songs off of the internet.


That wasn’t all they may have been watching. Noah Shachtman of Wired in another article notes that the vulnerability may have extended to the nearly theater wide ROVER program. “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.” The fear is that the insurgents have simply built their own ROVER terminals. … 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.

AFP reported that “the US military has fixed a problem that allowed Iraqi militants to use cheap software to intercept the video feeds of US-operated drones, a defense official said on Thursday. “This is an old issue that’s been addressed,” the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told reporters.

The Wired article takes issue with the assertion that the problem is fixed. The problem, according to some of its informants, is system wide. And facing the Air Force is one of the oldest dilemmas in the encryption game. How do you securely transmit the keys to the those at the end of the line, those who need it most?

“This is not a trivial solution,” one officer observes. “Almost very fighter/bomber/ISR [inteligence 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).” …

“Can these feeds be encrypted with 99.5% 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.”

But a far bigger factor in creating the debacle may not have been encryption. It was psychological,  what someone once described to me as the ‘inabiity of government to think anyone can do things the nonbureaucratic way’ The AFP article hints that the military simply didn’t believe the enemy could improvise a capability that took thousands of bureaucratic hours of effort to acquire. For a certain kind of mentality, the idea that something might cost less than ten million dollars is wholly inconceivable. And because it was inconceivable to the bureaucrat, therefore it was impossible.

The practice was uncovered in July 2009, when the US military found files of intercepted drone video feeds on the laptop of a captured militant, intelligence and defense officials told the Journal. They discovered “days and days and hours and hours of proof,” an unnamed source told the Journal. “It is part of their kits now.” Some of the most detailed examples of drone intercepts have been uncovered in Iraq, but the same technique is known to have been employed in Afghanistan and could easily be used in other areas where US drones operate.

The US government has known about the flaw since the 1990s, but assumed its adversaries would not be able to take advantage of it, the Journal said.

Interestingly, the insurgent’s secret wasn’t discovered (if published reports are to be believed) by some counter ELINT effort, but by someone kicking in an insurgent’s door, finding a laptop and having it analyzed. The boot came to the rescue of the electronic circuit and uncovered the vulnerability, or at least made its knowledge so widesread that bureaucracy had to fix it. In bureaucratic ontology existence has two meanings: the first is that a something actually exists; and the second is that something be bureaucratically recognized as existing.  The latter dominates the former.

As I’ve often written before one of the subtle benefits of being in contact with the enemy is simply being in contact with the enemy. Back in the day it was widely recognized that “being in contact” was in some sense desirable; cavalry units were used to stay in touch with enemy forces so the commanders would know what the other side was up to. While military operations are fundamentally designed to destroy the enemy, it is often not appreciated that an important byproduct of every encounter is information. Part of the reason there have been no mass attack surprises since 9/11 is that across the whole spectrum US forces have been in contact with the enemy.

Today, being in “contact” is politically bad. One day the politicians will break contact. This will have the benefit of reducing losses, both human and material. Fewer dead bodies will come back from the War on Terror. Fewer resources will be spent fighting it. That’s all to the good. But it will come at a subtle price. The US will be out of contact, or at least in more intermittent contact with the enemy. The losses will be fewer, but so will the information point. The price of not looking, the cost of not peeking under the rocks — is not seeing.


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