Encryption of drone feeds won't finish until 2014, Air Force says

By Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 19, 2009

It will take at least until 2014 to encrypt video feeds from the U.S. military's Predator and Reaper drones to prevent enemy forces from intercepting the information, Air Force officials said Friday.

Reports this week said U.S. forces had discovered that insurgents in Iraq, using inexpensive, off-the-shelf software, had been able to hack into video feeds from the drones, which are used for surveillance and launching missiles in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Some Pentagon officials initially dismissed the reports, saying this was an old problem that had been addressed.

But the Air Force Unmanned Aircraft Systems Flight Plan acknowledges concern. Work on encryption began this year on the Air Force's fleet, but the report said it will not be finished until 2014 and even then will not "account for the retrofit of the existing fleet."

The Army also operates unmanned aircraft and has acknowledged the need to protect the feeds sent from its fleet.

The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that U.S. forces had confiscated a laptop computer from an Iraqi insurgent that contained video files with feeds from drones. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staffs, told reporters in Iraq on Friday that although he was concerned about cybersecurity, there had been no known damage to U.S. military operations as a result of the intercepted information.

Still, former military officials said the failure to protect the video feeds was a serious issue.

Former Air Force secretary Michael Wynne, who served from November 2005 to June 2008, said that if the enemy is able to collect and archive enough feeds, "it could be useful in understanding our concepts of operation and many times how our tactics are used against them." The enemy, he said, "could essentially go to school on archived footage."

Though U.S. officials have known about the flaw for more than a decade, they considered the threat minimal compared with the advantage the drones provide to commanders and troops in the field.

"We were aware of the vulnerability, but at the time, we wanted to distribute the information as widely as possible, especially to our coalition partners, and unencrypted streaming video was the easiest," Wynne said. He said the linking up of the Predator system saved "a lot of lives" over the past 14 years.

He noted that in addition to encrypting the drone feeds, the receivers that troops on the ground use must be updated. The work must be done fast, Wynne said, and 2014 is "too late."

On Capitol Hill, some lawmakers called for hearings after the reports.

"I'm especially angry that people at the Pentagon knew this was a vulnerability going back to the 1990s and they didn't do anything," said Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.), a member of the Armed Services and Intelligence committees.

"They didn't think our adversaries would figure it out. So you've got people from Third World countries who've figured out a way to hack into our systems. That greatly disturbs me."

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