COMMENTARY | Predator and Reaper hunter/killer UAVs hunting terrorists and insurgents in Afghanistan have been infected with malware carrying A/V resistant keyloggers. According to an October 7, 2011, report from Wired, keyloggers have been sneaked into the onboard operational systems of Air Force Predator and Reaper drones, recording every move and command the remote pilots made as they crisscrossed war zones in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
American Predator and Reaper drones executing remote missions in Afghanistan and Pakistan are being operated by ordinary PCs. The virus was said to have showed up on a Microsoft based Windows system. One official at Creech Air Force Base in southern Nevada's Clark County said, "We have a closed looped system and heavily protected cockpits - the planes were never in jeopardy."
Air Force techs used the DoD's Host Based Secuirty System and other antivirus tools to clean it from the drone's sytems, but it keeps coming back according to one anonymous source quoted by Wired. "We think it's benign. But we just don't know. We keep wiping it off, and it keeps coming back."
Fool Me Twice...
This latest incident suggests that the USAF hasn't learned from past mistakes. Only a few years ago, Iraqi insurgents were found to have been hacking U.S. Military drones. That news broke in 2009, when The Wall Street Journal reported that "militants in Iraq 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."
The hacking was only discovered when U.S. forces found "days and days and hours and hours" of drone footage on the laptops of Iraqi insurgents which had been recorded from cameras mounted on the unmanned aerial vehicles.
After that incident, senior military and intelligence officials claimed they were working to encrypt all of its drone video feeds from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, but said it wasn't yet clear if the problem had been completely resolved.
However this past weekend, Wired reported: "Despite their widespread use, the drone systems are [still] known to have security flaws. Many Reapers and Predators don't encrypt the video they transmit to American troops on the ground."
One wonders why, after past security exploitations of obvious security shortfalls, have the problems still not been appropriately addressed? Using a Windows system, on regular PCs, with unencrypted transmissions … this all seems breathtakingly irresponsible.
The War Drones On
According to a recent NY Times report, "more CIA drone attacks have been conducted under President Barack Obama than under President George W. Bush. The Pentagon now has some 7,000 aerial drones, compared with fewer than 50 a decade ago, and has asked Congress for nearly $5 billion for drones in 2012."
As of today, the US Air Force uses drones in at least five countries. About 150 Predator drones and 50 Reaper drones are used in Afghanistan and Iraq, and an unknown number are engaged in Libya, Pakistan and Yemen.
But drone use is not only increasing in the skies of the Middle East. Use of UAVs in the United States is expected to become common practice within a few years -- by both Federal and local enforcement agencies.
There's been interest in using unmanned areal vehicles for everything from border security to domestic surveillance over U.S. cities. They are already being quietly used for border enforcement; and the FAA is expected to allow use of drones over U.S. cities by 2013.
Quartermaster Ben Miller, of the Mesa County Sheriff's Office, Colorado, was quoted by the Washington Post as saying drones are the most promising technology since tasers. (This comment suggests we can expect drones to be misused at least as much as tasers. But I digress... )
Hijacking An Airplane Is So 2001
Other governments are interested in employing the use of drones as well; including China. In November of 2010, The Mercury News reported that "Chinese companies startled some Americans by unveiling 25 different models of remotely controlled aircraft and showing video animation of a missile-armed drone taking out an armored vehicle and attacking a U.S. aircraft carrier."
If drones are to be found circling over major cities all over the world, it could offer any potential terrorist a convenient menu of targets with a ready-to-go weapon circling above. And the fact that the drones can be manipulated from anywhere in the world offers greater incentive -- it's less of a suicide mission and more of a video game.
Unless the major security flaws aren't shored up quickly, armchair terrorism could become the next modern threat.
The unnamed official who spoke with Wired insists that the news media is overreacting to this latest security breach of the unmanned aerial vehicles. However, senior officers at Creech are being briefed daily on the virus. "It's getting a lot of attention," the source says. "But no one's panicking. Yet."