U.S. Army working to encrypt UAV video feeds

Published 21 December 2009

The Army is scrambling to secure the live video feeds from its UAVs from being intercepted by insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan; Raven drones will be retrofitted with encryption technology as early as this month; the U.S. Air Force has known for more than a decade that the live video feeds from its unmanned aerial vehicles can be intercepted by the enemy but opted not to do anything about it until this year.

As we reported a few days ago, U.S. defense officials confirmed on 17 December that Iraqi insurgents have been capturing the nonsecure, line-of-sight communications signals from Army and Air Force drones since mid-2008. Army officials acknowledged that the service has fielded hundreds of drones without the ability to encrypt the signals that ground forces rely upon for intelligence and surveillance of insurgent hideouts or roadside-bomb hot spots.

The Army will retrofit the handheld Raven and other UAVs over “at least two years,” targeting currently deployed systems first, said Col. Gregory Gonzalez, the Army’s project manager for unmanned aerial vehicles. For the Shadow, Hunter, Warrior Alpha, and the Extended-Range Multipurpose UAV, the Army will retrofit all systems with encryption, as funding permits, said Gonzalez. “This is not the first time that we have heard about the potential threat against full motion video. The threats are ongoing, and the Department of Defense has taken some risk,” said Gonzalez. “We received specific direction from the Office of the Secretary of Defense within the last year to fix the problem.”

Michael Hoffman, John Reed and Joe Gould write that-a report published in the 17 December edition of the Wall Street Journal detailed how defense officials earlier this year discovered laptops in Iraq loaded with a $25.95 Russian-made software program called SkyGrabber that hacked into video broadcast by Predator cameras, which show the location of insurgents being targeted by the drones. Besides the SkyGrabber software, insurgents have used high-tech methods to capture the video feeds.

U.S. troops found advanced electronic warfare equipment in a 2008 raid on Shiite militia, according to an Air Force intelligence officer briefed on the raid.

Army officials acknowledged the interceptions, and the Pentagon issued a general statement on the security of its intelligence gathering. “The Department of Defense constantly evaluates and seeks to improve the performance and security of our various ISR systems and platforms. As we identify shortfalls, we correct them as part of a continuous process of seeking to improve capabilities and security,” the statement said.

One Air Force official contends the insurgents’ ability to watch drone feeds has adversely affected U.S. operations in the Middle East. “We noticed a trend when going after these guys; that sometimes they seemed to have better early warning” of U.S. actions, said the officer briefed on the raid. “We went and did a raid on one of their safe houses and found all of this equipment