In December 2011, a stealth U.S. spy drone operated by the CIA crashed in Iranian territory. Iran said it downed the advanced RQ-170 drone in an “electronic ambush.” U.S. officials said they did not believe that the drone had been hacked or jammed. They said a technical malfunction was probably to blame.
Although the navigational satellite links are encrypted, other drone transmissions are sometimes left unprotected.
In 2009, the U.S. military discovered that Iraqi insurgents had hacked into video feeds from Predator and Shadow drones using off-the-shelf software. The drones had been transmitting full-motion video to U.S. troops on the ground, but the Air Force had not encrypted those data links, leaving them vulnerable.
Air Force officials acknowledged the flaw and said they would work to encrypt all video feeds from its fleet of Predator drones by 2014. In their classified assessments, U.S. intelligence agencies sought to play down the insurgents’ hacking handiwork. Although analysts were concerned about the interceptions of the video feeds, they said there was no sign that insurgents had been able to seize control of the drone itself.
“While the ability of insurgent forces to view unencrypted or to break into encrypted data streams has been a concern for some time, indications to date are that insurgents have not been able to wrest [drone] control from its mission control ground station,” a 2010 report concluded.
The report went on to suggest that allowing insurgents to intercept video feeds might actually have “a deterrent effect” by demonstrating the extent to which U.S. forces were able to watch their movements.
Still, summaries of the classified reports indicate a growing unease among U.S. agencies about al-Qaeda’s determination to find a way to neutralize drones.
“Al-Qaida Engineers in Pakistan Continue Development of Laser-Warning Systems in Effort To Counter UAV Strikes,” read the headline of one report in 2011, using the military acronym for unmanned aerial vehicles.
Beyond the threat that al-Qaeda might figure out how to hack or shoot down a drone, however, U.S. spy agencies worried that their drone campaign was becoming increasingly vulnerable to public opposition.
Intelligence analysts took careful note of al-Qaeda’s efforts to portray drone strikes as cowardly or immoral, beginning in January 2011 with a report titled “Al-Qa’ida Explores Manipulating Public Opinion to Curb CT Pressure.”
Analysts also questioned whether they were losing the rhetorical battle in the media, the courts and even among “citizens with legitimate social agendas.” One 2010 report predicted that drone operations “could be brought under increased scrutiny, perceived to be illegitimate, openly resisted or undermined.”
In response, intelligence agencies floated their own ideas to influence public perceptions. One unclassified report said the phrase “drone strike” should never be uttered, calling it “a loaded term.”
“Drones connote mindless automatons with no capability for independent thought or action,” the report said. “Strikes connote a first attack, which leaves the victim unable to respond. Other phrases employed to evoke an emotional response include ‘Kill List,’ ‘Hit Squads,’ ‘Robot Warfare,’ or ‘Aerial Assassins.’ ”
Instead, the report advised referring to “lethal UAV operations.” It also suggested “elevating the conversation” to more-abstract issues, such as the “Inherent Right of Self-Defense” and “Pre-emptive and Preventive Military Action.”
Greg Miller contributed to this report.