Insurgents in Iraq have hacked into live video feeds from Predator drones, a key weapon in a Pentagon spy system that serves as the military's eyes in the sky for surveillance and intelligence collection.
Though militants could see the video, there is no evidence they were able to jam the electronic signals from the unmanned aerial craft or take control of the vehicles, a senior defense official said Thursday, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence issues.
Obtaining the video feeds can provide insurgents with critical information about what the military may be targeting, including buildings, roads and other facilities.
Shiite fighters in Iraq used off-the-shelf software programs such as SkyGrabber — available for as little as $25.95 on the Internet — to regularly capture drone video feeds, the Wall Street Journal reported Thursday. The hacking was possible because the remotely flown planes have an unprotected communications link.
The Defense Department has addressed the issue, first discovered a year ago, by working to encrypt all its drone video feeds from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, the defense official said.
Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula, deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, said earlier this week that hacking is always a concern.
"Any time you have a system that is operated through command links, and that broadcasts information using omni-directional signals, those are subject to listening and exploitation," said Deptula. "One of the ways we deal with that is encrypting signals."
The Predator, also key to the war in Afghanistan and the hunt for al-Qaida and other militants in neighboring Pakistan, can fly for hours remotely controlled by pilots thousands of miles away. It can fly armed or unarmed and is part of a growing arsenal of such craft that includes the Reaper and Raven as well as a new, high-tech video sensor system called the Gorgon Stare, being installed on Reapers.
The military has known about the vulnerability for more than a decade, but assumed adversaries would not be able to exploit it.
Then in December 2008, the military apprehended a Shiite militant in Iraq whose laptop contained files of intercepted drone video feeds, the Journal reported. In July, they found pirated feeds on other militant laptops, leading some officials to conclude that groups trained and funded by Iran were regularly intercepting feeds and sharing them with multiple extremist groups.
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said the military continually evaluates the technologies it uses and quickly corrects any vulnerabilities found.
Whitman said there were no plans to pull back on the military's use of technologies like drones, because they provide invaluable benefits to commanders.
"There's potential vulnerabilities in all of our systems," he said.