Hackers working with Iraqi militants were able to determine which areas of the country were under surveillance by the U.S. military, the Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday, adding that video feeds from drones in Afghanistan also appear to have been compromised.
This apparent security breach, which had been known in military and intelligence circles to be possible, arose because the Predator unmanned aerial vehicles do not use encryption in the final link to their operators on the ground. (By contrast, every time you log on to a bank or credit card Web site, or make a phone call on most modern cellular networks, your communications are protected by encryption technology.)
Meanwhile, a senior Air Force officer said Wednesday that a wave of new surveillance aircraft, both manned and unmanned, were being deployed to Afghanistan to bolster "eyes in the sky" protection for the influx of American troops ordered by President Obama.
The Air Force became aware of the security vulnerability when copies of Predator video feeds were discovered on a laptop belonging to a Shiite militant late last year, and again in July on other militants' laptops, the Journal reported. The problem, though, is that the drones use proprietary technology created in the early 1990s, and adding encryption would be an expensive task.
The implications of the Predator's unencrypted transmissions have been known in military circles for a long time. 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."
In 2002, a British engineer who enjoys scanning satellite signals for fun stumbled across a NATO video feed from the Kosovo war. CBS News correspondent Mark Phillips reported then on the apparent surveillance security shortfall, and the U.S. military's decision to essentially let it slide.
The Air Force had hoped to replace the Predator with a stealthier, high-altitude version nicknamed "Darkstar," and the 1999 presentation by then-Maj. Jeffrey Stephenson noted that the new "high altitude UAVs will be capable of encryption." But the Defense Department informed Lockheed Martin that year that the Darkstar program would be terminated.
Iraqi interest in intercepting U.S. military transmissions is not exactly new. A report prepared for the CIA director after the U.S. invasion and occupation noted that Saddam Hussein assigned a young relative with a master's degree in computer science to intercept transmissions from U.S. satellites. The relative, "Usama," was secretly given office space in the Baghdad Aerospace Research Center, which had access to satellite downlinks.
The 2005 CIA report compiled by special advisor Charles Duelfer quotes Abd al-Tawab Huwaysh, Saddam's minister of industry, as saying he was shown real-time overhead video supposedly of U.S. military installations in Turkey, Kuwait, and Qatar before the invasion. A likely explanation, the report concludes, is that "Usama located and downloaded the unencrypted satellite feed from U.S. military UAVs."
A 1996 briefing by Paul Kaminski, an undersecretary of defense for acquisition and technology, may offer a hint about how the Iraqi's interception was done. Kaminski said that the military had turned to commercial satellites -- "Hughes is the primary provider of direct (satellite) TV that you can buy in the United States, and that's the technology we're leveraging off of" -- to share feeds from Predator drones.
"What this does is it provides now a broader distribution path to anybody who's in that downward receiving beam, for example," Kaminski said.
So why, after the CIA publicly reported that Predator transmissions had probably been intercepted in Iraq, did the Air Force do so little? One explanation is that the contractor, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems of San Diego, built the system in the early 1990s before encryption was common and easier to include. (Computer scientists had warned at the time that the U.S. government's anti-encryption laws were counter-productive because they discouraged the development and routine use of that technology.)
Bureaucratic inertia is another. As CBSNews.com reported last month, messages from President Clinton's entourage were intercepted in 1997, but Secret Service agents continued to use unencrypted pagers to share sensitive information about threats to the president's life on September 11, 2001. Perhaps it takes a front-page story in the Wall Street Journal to prod government officials into rethinking their views on the desirability of encryption.
Update 1 p.m. ET: A spokesman for the Air Force, Maj. Cristin Marposon, sent us this statement: "The Department of Defense constantly evaluates and seeks to improve the performance and security of our various (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) systems and platforms. As we identify shortfalls, we correct them as part of a continuous process of seeking to improve capabilities and security. As a matter of policy, we don't comment on specific vulnerabilities or intelligence issues."
Declan McCullagh is a senior correspondent for CBSNews.com. He can be reached at email@example.com and can be followed on Twitter as declanm. You can bookmark Declan's Taking Liberties site here, or subscribe to the RSS feed. Before becoming a CBS employee, Declan was the chief political correspondent for CNET, a reporter for Time, and Washington bureau chief for Wired.