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Half of military drones may broadcast unencrypted footage

Published time: October 29, 2012 18:59
Edited time: October 29, 2012 22:59
An Air Force MQ-9 Reaper. (AFP Photo / James Lee Harper)

An Air Force MQ-9 Reaper. (AFP Photo / James Lee Harper)

The unmanned drones that have become a hallmark of the Obama administration’s foreign policy wreak havoc across the world every day as part of the broadening war on terror, but you don’t have to be an insurgent or soldier to have a front-row seat.

The US military relies on stealthy, remote controlled Reaper and Predator drones — unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVS — to take out insurgents and suspected terrorists overseas without ever putting boots on the ground. But while the transmissions sent from the empty cockpits to control centers around the globe broadcast each and every move of America’s insanely expensive and extraordinary technology, that doesn’t mean the data is streamed solely to Uncle Sam.

In 2008, the US discovered that Shi’ite militants in Iraq had accessed the video feed sent from those stealth drones using only a $26 piece of software, then sent the footage to laptops that eventually landed in the hands of American intelligence. Wired.com’s Danger Room reports that the problem stemmed from something that warranted a relatively easy solution: retrofitting those aircraft with encryption devices that ensured only authorized eyes could see the stream. Four years down the road, however, a source involved in those upgrades tells the website that it’s still easy to hijack transmissions with hardly any trouble.

Only “30 to 50 percent” of the United States’ Predator and Reaper drones are using fully encrypted transmissions, a source familiar with the retrofitting effort tells Danger Room, adding that the United States’ missile-firing fleet of secret spy ships aren’t likely to be fully fixed until 2014, at which point US President Barack Obama says we will already be ending the war in Afghanistan.

As Noah Shachtman and David Axe write for Wired, transmissions sent from drones to command centers can be routed either via satellite or with Common Data Link radio signals, although full encryption is only applied in the former.

”Standard unencrypted video is basically a broadcast to whoever can figure out the right carrier frequency, so essentially, we are simulcasting to battlefield commanders and the opposing force. If that opposing force knows we can see them and from where, they can take better evasive maneuvers,” a source involved in Navy UAVs tell Wired.

Several sources speaking to Danger Room say that the military is in the midst of spending tens of millions of dollars to upgrade both UAVs and on-the-ground receivers, but full encryption won’t be available across the whole array of arsenals for years to come.

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