A US air force ‘predator’ (Peter Nicholls/The Times)
by Chris Ayres
Predator drones used by the CIA against Islamic militants have been hacked into by insurgents using nothing more sophisticated than a $25.95 (£16) off-the-shelf software, it was revealed last night.
Although the insurgents were not able to control the $20 million aircraft, typically armed with Hellfire missiles and flown over the battlefields of Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, they could watch live video feeds beamed back to US control stations through their electronic “eyeballs”.
The hackers’ success raises the disturbing possibility of the Predators being taken over and used to attack US or British forces, or perhaps even domestic targets. Although Predator aircraft are usually flown by remote control from thousands of miles away, some are kept for testing at US Airforce bases such as Creech, near Las Vegas.
Speaking off-the-record, senior American defence officials confirmed that the Predators had been compromised and admitted that the video feeds could give insurgents critical information about US targets overseas, including buildings, roads, and other facilities.
The Wall Street Journal reported that the hackers were Iranian-backed Shias in Iraq, who used easily downloadable software, such as SkyGrabber, to capture the video feeds, which had not been protected by military encryption.
It is thought that the US military has known about the vulnerability of Predators for more than a decade but assumed that insurgents would not be sophisticated enough to exploit it. Then in December 2008, the military apprehended a Shia militant in Iraq whose laptop contained files of intercepted video feeds. Seven months later they found pirated feeds on other computers in Afghanistan.
The Pentagon is now scrambling to encrypt all its Predator video from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Dale Meyerrose, a former chief information officer for US intelligence, compared the problem to criminals listening to police scanners. The Predator forms part of a growing arsenal of unmanned aircraft that includes the Reaper and the Raven. Some of the latest Reapers have been fitted with a new, high-tech video sensor system which provides a wide-angle view of the battlefield.
About 800 French Legionnaires backed by 200 US special forces and Afghan soldiers have begun an offensive in a valley in Afghanistan where the Taleban killed ten French soldiers last year. French officials said that several American soldiers were wounded in the in the battle in Uzbin Valley, east of Kabul.