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US Drone Hack Resolved

December 18, 2009

The U.S. military has resolved the issue of Iraqi militants using easily accessed software from the Internet to capture live video feeds from U.S.-operated drones, a problem that has revealed the tech-savviness of insurgents and their ability to adapt to American military advances, a defense official said on Thursday.

“This is an old issue that’s been addressed,” the official, who requested anonymity, told reporters.

He said the problem has been “taken care of.”

He gave his comments following the Wall Street Journal reports that Iranian-backed Shiite insurgents had utilized software programs such as SkyGrabber, which is available online for $25.95, to intercept live video footage from drones, reported AFP.

While the official was able to confirm the accuracy of the report, he declined to offer any details regarding attempts to encrypt the link between drones and operators on the ground.

The issue raised many doubts about the valuable drones, which are key to U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as CIA manhunts against Al-Qaeda figures in Pakistan.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has made the expansion and improvement of the drone fleet a high priority. The drone fleet includes Predator and Reaper aircraft outfitted with precision-guided bombs and Hellfire missiles.

After reviewing the issues on orders from Gates, James Clapper, the undersecretary of defense for intelligence, concluded that the hacking by Iraqi insurgents exposed a breech in the drone fleet security.

Intelligence and defense officials told the Journal that the U.S. military discovered the problem in July 2009, after finding files of intercepted drone video feeds on the laptop of a captured militant.

They discovered “days and days and hours and hours of proof,” an anonymous source told the Journal. “It is part of their kits now.”

Though some of the most detailed examples of drone intercepts were found in Iraq, the same method is known to have been used in Afghanistan as well, and easily could be used in other areas where U.S. drones operate.

The flaw has been common knowledge with the U.S. government since the 1990s, but it was believed that adversaries could not make use of it, the Journal said.

While there is no evidence that militants had the ability to control the drones or interfere with their flights, the drones could still be tracked and monitored.

In order to add encryption to a decade-old system, several components of the system linking the drones to ground control must be upgraded.

SkyGrabber, made by Russian company SkySoftware, is intended to enable users to access free legal content like music and videos that others are downloading, and apparently also allows militants to see what the $4.5 million Predators flying over the region were sending back to US military command.

One of the SkyGrabber developers told the Journal that he was completely ignorant to the fact that the software was letting users intercept drone feeds.

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