Commanders Discussed Drone Hacking in 2004

This undated handout photo provided by the U.S. Air Force shows a MQ-9 Reaper, armed with GBU-12 Paveway II laser guided munitions and AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, piloted by Col. Lex Turner during a combat mission over southern Afghanistan. AP Photo/U.S. Air Force

Senior U.S. commanders discussed in 2004 the prospect of Russia or China hijacking unencrypted video signals sent from American military surveillance aircraft hovering over battlefields, The Wall Street Journal reports.

The revelation comes a day after The Journal broke the story that Iraqi militants had successfully downlinked the freely available video feeds from Predator drones patrolling that country.

The Pentagon conceded later Thursday that militants in both Iraq and Afghanistan were known to have pirated the unprotected video feeds. Military officials insist, however, there's no indication that insurgents in either theater have ever been able to hack into the systems controlling the aircraft, or alter the video being fed.

That possibility, that a foreign entity such as China or Russia might hijack the video transmission and manipulate it to confuse American battlefield commanders, was at the heart of the 2004 discussion among officers working for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reports The Journal.

Meanwhile, the top U.S. military officer said the hacking of U.S. drones caused no significant military damage.

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, confirmed that hackers obtained data from drones patrolling Iraq. Mullen, who is currently in Iraq, added that he is very concerned about the issue of hacking and cybersecurity.

One American officer, who The Journal says is familiar with the talks that took place in 2004, told the paper: "The fear was a commander looking on a feed, seeing nothing, and then having an enemy tank brigade come roaring into your command post."

According to the paper's sources, senior commanders largely dismissed the concerns as they were too preoccupied with the more material threats of the day; IEDs and insurgent attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan. The enemies in those countries were not considered technically advanced enough to downlink the unencrypted video themselves.

The warnings about China or Russia possibly exploiting the unsecured video transmissions are notable, as they involved large global powers with which the United States has frequently been at odds, but they were far from the first concerns voiced over the spy planes' video feeds.

In 2002, a British engineer who scans satellite signals for recreation at his home stumbled across a NATO video feed from the Kosovo war. CBS News correspondent Mark Phillips (click for video) reported then on the apparent surveillance security shortfall - and the U.S. military's decision to essentially let it slide.

Even prior to that, the vulnerable nature of the Predator drone feeds was a well-known and apparently accepted risk in the military.

CBSNews.com's Declan McCullagh reported Thursday that an October 1999 presentation given at the Air Force's School of Advanced Airpower Studies in Alabama noted, "the Predator UAV is designed to operate with unencrypted data links."

According to The Journal's Friday article, it wasn't until 2009 that the Pentagon began equipping some military surveillance aircraft to feed encrypted video signals.

The Air Force would not reveal to CBSNews.com whether all new aircraft made for surveillance purposes are being equipped with the encryption technology, or the pace at which the current fleet is being upgraded to do so.

One official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, would only tell CBS: "The Air Force has been taking steps to rapidly upgrade our current and future remotely piloted aircraft fleet to protect the datalinks."
(AP)
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