Hackable Drones, Crumbling Empire


On the eve of the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, historian Chalmers Johnson observed in The Sorrows of Empire: "At this late date … it is difficult to imagine how Congress, much like the Roman senate in the last days of the republic, could be brought back to life and cleansed of its endemic corruption."

Drawing striking analogies between the fall of the Roman republic and America’s decline as a global capitalist power, Johnson wrote: "Failing such a reform, Nemesis, the goddess of retribution and vengeance, the punisher of pride and hubris, waits impatiently for her meeting with us."

Judging by the fragile state of American sociopolitical life, that meeting may not be as far off as most of us think.

America’s Hackable Drones

In this light, it was hardly surprising to read in The Wall Street Journal last week that "Militants in Iraq have 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 Journal revealed that the Pentagon’s "potential drone vulnerability lies in an unencrypted downlink between the unmanned craft and ground control." Investigative journalists Siobhan Gorman, Yochi Dreazen and August Cole disclosed that the "U.S. government has known about the flaw since the U.S. campaign in Bosnia in the 1990s."

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But since feeding the corporatist beast, in this case General Atomics Inc., is priority number one for grifters in Congress, the problem was allowed to fester until the boil finally popped.

Considering that the Obama administration "has come to rely heavily on the unmanned drones" for imperial machinations across the entire Eurasian "Arc of Crisis" or any number of other "theaters" where the U.S. military and the corporate masters they serve, steal other people’s resources (known as "Keeping America Safe" in our debased political lexicon), this news will probably come as quite a shock.

After all, we’ve been to led to believe that the heimat’s occupying armies, like ancient Roman legionnaires, are "invincible."

But as the Journal reported "the stolen video feeds also indicate that U.S. adversaries continue to find simple ways of counteracting sophisticated American military technologies." (emphasis added)

Contemplate and savor that phrase, dear readers. While wags in the Pentagon Borg hive may believe "resistance is futile," insurgent hackers using off-the-shelf software and cheap, easy to rig antennas were able to determine, in real-time no less, tactical information transmitted to U.S. troops on the ground. As the Journal noted, unencrypted video feeds from drones in Afghanistan and Pakistan also "appear to have been compromised."

Another surveillance drone deployed both in Iraq and Afghanistan, the ScanEagle manufactured by Boeing subsidiary Insitu, is plagued by similar problems.

In a follow-up piece, the Journal reported that the ScanEagle "can stay aloft for 24 hours and carries electro-optical and infrared cameras up to an altitude of 16,000 feet."

But as with the Predator and Reaper attack drones, the ScanEagle’s "video feed hasn’t been encrypted," primarily "because military officials have long assumed no one would make the effort to try to intercept it."

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An Insitu spokesperson told the Journal that the firm was in the "advanced stages of development of a technical solution for video data encryption for ScanEagle."

Writing in Wired For War, analyst P.W. Singer describes the "next generation of the Predator," the MQ-9 Reaper as "four times bigger and nine times more powerful" than its predecessor. Claiming that the attack drone comes "close to flying itself," Singer touts the ability of the aircraft to "recognize and categorize human and human-made objects. It can even make sense of the changes in the target it is watching, such as being able to interpret and retrace footprints or even lawn mover tracks."

"As of 2008," Singer informs us, "two Reaper prototypes were already deployed to Afghanistan" and we can presume Pakistan as well. Investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill revealed last month in The Nation that the mercenary firm Blackwater is working on the CIA and Joint Special Operations Command’s "drone bombing program in Pakistan."

According to Scahill’s military intelligence source, while CIA operations are subject to congressional oversight, "parallel JSOC bombing are not." The source told Scahill, "Contractors and especially JSOC personnel working under a classified mandate are not [overseen by Congress], so they just don’t care. If there’s one person they’re going after and there’s thirty-four people in the building, thirty-five people are going to die. That’s the mentality."

What other "mentality" is operative here, particularly amongst journalists wowed by the technology but indifferent to the death and destruction they inflict on defenseless civilians? Aviation Week’s Bill Sweetman told Singer when queried about Reaper deployments in the "Afpak" theater: "It may not be unreasonable to assume they are standing alert somewhere in case a certain high-priority target pops his head out of his cave."

Leaving aside Sweetman’s dubious stab at humor, in light of last week’s revelations one must ask, why bother to pop your head out of a cave, when a small, commercially-available satellite dish and a cheap laptop will do the trick? But what make these reports so telling is that "the Pentagon assumed local adversaries wouldn’t know how to exploit it." Where have we heard that before? Dien Bien Phu? The Bay of Pigs? The "cakewalk" In Iraq, perhaps?

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While history doesn’t repeat, although tragedies and farces abound, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the giant defense firms who line their pockets upon retirement, as USA Today revealed last month, mix their whiskeys with net-centric kool-aid, and have staked their careers (and the lives of their economic conscripts and the victims of these indiscriminate drone attacks) on quixotic, dubious theories of robowar.

But with a U.S. Defense Department budget that tops $685 billion for fiscal year 2010, and considering that drones will account for a whopping 36% of the Air Force’s acquisition budget, why would Pentagon policy planners assume otherwise? After all, how could a motley crew of shepherds, day laborers and "Saddam dead-enders" outfox America’s mighty imperial army? How, indeed!

According to Air Force Times, although the Pentagon knew that UAV feeds were being hacked since 2008 and probably earlier, top Air Force generals, acceding to the wishes of their political masters in the Defense Department, notably former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his coterie of neocon yes-men, did nothing to upset the high-tech apple cart and sought instead to hit the corporate "sweet spot."

Former Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne was fired in 2008 when it was revealed that a B-52 Stratofortress bomber flew some 1,500 miles from Minot Air Force base in North Dakota to Barksdale Air Force base in Louisiana with nuclear-tipped cruise missiles fixed to its wings. Compounding the scandal, for nearly six hours the Air Force was unable to account for the weapons. Commenting on the hacked UAV drone feeds, Air Force Times disclosed:

Wynne took part in meetings with the Office of the Secretary of Defense in 2004 and 2005 about concerns with the links, but the consensus from the meetings was to field the UAVs as quickly as possible.

"I would say people were aware of it [the vulnerability], but it wasn’t disturbing," Wynne said. "It wasn’t yet dangerous; it certainly didn’t disrupt an operation, so why make a huge deal of it?" (Michael Hoffman, John Reed and Joe Gould, "Fixes on the Way for Nonsecure UAV Links," Air Force Times, December 20, 2009)

Meanwhile, former Air Force Chief of Staff General T. Michael Moseley, fired along with Wynne over the loose nuke incident, attended the same DoD conclave with his boss and capo tutti capo Rumsfeld. Moseley told the publication "his worry" was "about the security of the aircraft’s datalinks."

"My question from the beginning was … ‘What is our confidence level that links are secure?’ Not just the imaging that comes off, but also the command and flying links. The answer was ‘We’re working that’ from the General Atomics folks," Moseley said.

San Diego-based General Atomics Inc., No. 36 on Washington Technology‘s "2009 Top 100 List of Prime Federal Contractors" is plush with revenue totaling $593,742,395. Major customers include the Navy, Air Force, Army, the Department of Homeland Security and NASA, and the bulk of their business these days comes from manufacturing the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper drones.

When queried by Journal reporters about the UAV’s vulnerabilities, a company spokeswoman told the journalists that for "security reasons," the firm couldn’t comment on "specific data link capabilities and limitations."

Could their lack of transparency have something to do perhaps with the fact that the Air Force plans to buy some 375 Reaper drones at a cost of some $10-12 million each? I guess they’re "working that" too!

Other Systems Vulnerable

But the problem is worse, far worse than the Pentagon has acknowledged. Wired reported that "tapping into drones’ video feeds was just the start."

Read the rest of the article

January 4, 2010