Updated Iraqi militants are intercepting sensitive video feeds from US predator drones using $26 off-the-shelf software, and the same technique leaves feeds from most military aircraft vulnerable to snooping, according to published reports.
Insurgents backed by Iran have regularly accessed the unencrypted video feeds of the unmanned planes, which the Obama administration has increasingly relied on to monitor and attack militants. The insurgents then share the footage with multiple extremist groups, according to a report from The Wall Street Journal, which was published Thursday. It's not clear if the problem has been fixed.
The security lapse was discovered late last year when US military personnel in Iraq apprehended a Shiite militant with a laptop that contained intercepted drone video feeds. In July, personnel found additional feeds on other militant laptops, leading some officials to believe that groups tied to Iran were regularly tapping in to the unprotected communications link used by the drones.
The military found "days and days and hours and hours of proof" that the feeds were being intercepted and shared with a variety of militant groups, the WSJ said, citing an unnamed person familiar with the reports.
The network linking the drones to operators in the US, Afghanistan, or Pakistan is more than a decade old, and many of its components will have to be upgraded to prevent insurgents from intercepting feeds. Officials have stepped up efforts to protect the system, but "it wasn't yet clear if the problem had been completely resolved," according to the WSJ.
To access the feeds, the militants have been using SkyGrabber, a publicly available program that pulls movies and music off satellites and sells for $26.
In an article published later Thursday, Wired.com reported that the US military's primary system for sharing overhead surveillance with soldiers and Marines on the ground is also suscepible to the electronic interception using SkyGrabber. The system - known as ROVER, short for remotely operated video enhanced receiver - is installed on "nearly every airplane in the American fleet," the report said.
Military officials are working to close the massive security hole, but one of them cautions: "This is not a trivial solution. Almost every fighter/bomber/ISR [intelligence surveillance reconnaissance] platform we have in theater has a ROVER downlink."
US officials say there is no evidence that militants have been able to take control of the drones. Still, the interception is a significant because it could give enemies considerable battlefield advantages.
This article was updated to include details reported by Wired.com.