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Did Iran hijack the 'beast'? US experts cautious about bold claims. (Video)

To hijack the lost US drone, Iran would have to have overcome major technical hurdles. None are impossible, but US experts question Iran's capabilities in such high-end cyberwarfare. 

By Staff writer / December 16, 2011

This photo released by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards claims to show US RQ-170 Sentinel drone which Tehran says its forces downed earlier this week.

Sepahnews/AP

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An Iranian claim that it used cyberwarfare techniques to hijack a US stealth drone, getting it to land in that country, drew deep skepticism from some US cyberwarfare experts who doubt Iran's ability to carry out such an operation.

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Downed US Drone: How Iran Caught the "Beast"
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In an exclusive interview, an engineer working to unlock the secrets of the captured RQ-170 Sentinel says they exploited a known vulnerability and tricked the US drone into landing in Iran.

Iran gained control of the drone by overwhelming the GPS signal that was guiding the aircraft with an Iranian signal, an Iranian engineer told The Christian Science Monitor on condition of anonymity. An Iranian cyberwarfare team then made the drone believe it had arrived home and should land, the source told the Monitor.

To accomplish such a cyber coup, at least three and probably many more major technical hurdles would need to be overcome, several US cyberwarfare and drone experts said. While none of these steps is impossible, each is difficult, and taken together, they represent a massive technological challenge for any enemy hacker – one that the US experts suggest is beyond Iran’s capabilities.

On one hand, hacking into drones is not unprecedented. Speculation persists that Iran-backed Hezbollah has successfully crashed Israeli drones. Moreover, in 2009, Iraqi militants using off-the-shelf software broke through safeguards to download live, unencrypted video from US drones.

Even in the US, a computer virus infected the virtual cockpits of pilots controlling America’s Predator and Reaper drones at Creech Air Force Base, Nev., "logging pilots’ every keystroke as they remotely fly missions over Afghanistan and other warzones," Wired.com reported in October.

But the hijacking and safe landing of the RQ-170 in Iran, if true, would represent a new level of cyberintrigue in the drone wars.

First, Iran would need to spot the stealth drone. Second, it would need to jam the encrypted GPS signal. Third, it would have to substitute a false signal that the internal systems on the drone could understand and obey.

US experts say even the first task – spotting the drone – would be very difficult for Iran.

"The weak point in the Iranian argument is how they detected the drone in the first place, which I find implausible given the existing quality of their air-defense system, which is not sufficiently sophisticated to detect it," says Dennis Gormley, a University of Pittsburgh expert on unmanned air systems, including cruise missiles and drones, who also worked in the intelligence community. "Their air defenses are of a type that doesn't have the ability to detect a low-cross-section vehicle like the RQ-170."

Locating a stealth drone operating at perhaps 40,000 feet would stretch even Russia and China, which have far more sophisticated radar defense systems, he says.

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