Predator drones use less encryption than your TV, DVDs
Militants have been recording video from US Predator drones in Iraq and Afghanistan using laptops and $30 software, thanks to a total lack of encryption.
By Nate Anderson | Last updated December 17, 2009 11:13 AM
What three-letter Internet acronym best fits the bizarre news out of Iraq and Afghanistan that militants there have been intercepting US Predator drone video feeds using laptops and a $30 piece of Russian software: LOL, WTF, or OMG?
Actually, all three are appropriate for something this farcical, horrible, and brain-numbing. The reason that the transmissions could be picked up easily by a cheap satellite recording program? They were broadcast in the clear between the drone and ground control. That's right—no encryption was used.
Perhaps, you might be thinking to yourself in a mental bid to make the military seem competent here, no one could have suspected this would happen. But they did suspect it, because it had been happening for a decade already. The Wall Street Journal, which broke the story, included this tidbit in its report: "The potential drone vulnerability lies in an unencrypted downlink between the unmanned craft and ground control. The US government has known about the flaw since the US campaign in Bosnia in the 1990s, current and former officials said. But the Pentagon assumed local adversaries wouldn't know how to exploit it, the officials said."
After finding various laptops containing hours of recorded drone footage, the military has at last moved to encrypt the downlink between the drone and ground control, but there are problems. Not with encryption technology, which is robust, but with the fact the military 1) did not use encryption at the beginning and retrofitting is hard, and 2) the Predator's maker uses some proprietary communications gear, so off-the-shelf encryption tools don't all work.
The sad but inevitable comparison has to be drawn here with consumer electronics. Blu-ray discs, which use the AACS control scheme, feature a new DRM scheme of bewildering complexity in an attempt to thwart pirates.
Encryption, Hollywood style
Operating system vendors have built entire "protected path" setups to guard audio and video all the way through the device chain. TVs and monitors now routinely use HDCP copy protection to secure their links over HDMI cables. Game consoles are packed with encryption schemes to prevent copied games from playing. Microsoft even goes out of its way to add encryption when Windows Media Center records unencrypted over-the-air TV content. Even the humble DVD, with its long-since-breached CSS encryption, offers more in the way of encryption.
But US drones, which spy on militants and rain down death from a distance, have none. The mind boggles, as it seems like the situation should be totally reversed: no encryption on legally-purchased content, more encryption on devices designed to watch and kill human beings.