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Predator drone download by Iraqi insurgents wasn't 'hacking'

A Wall Street Journal story on the apparent ability of Iraqi insurgents to intercept video surveillance taken by the US military's $4 million predator drones has attracted intense interest. But the vulnerability of the transmissions has long been understood, and the intercepts weren't really "hacks."

By Staff writer / December 17, 2009

Aircraft mechanics Paul Rudolph and Schuyler Dunn replace a multispectural targeting system ball on an MQ-1B Predator July 9 at Ali Base, Iraq.

Sabrina Johnson/US Air Force/Sipa Press/Newscom

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The Wall Street Journal story on Thursday morning that revealed insurgents in Iraq had been intercepting video transmissions from US Predator drones had a very catchy headline: "Insurgents Hack US Drones: $26 software is used to breach key weapons in Iraq; Iranian backing suspected."

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Those words "hack," "breach" and "Iranian" were enough to set off frightening flights of fancy: Iraqi fighters had found a way to commandeer the $4 million Predators and their Hellfire missiles. If they'd managed to wrest control away from their US pilots (who are often sitting in air-conditioned offices in Arizona while gathering intelligence over Mosul or planning strikes on insurgent leaders in Baquba), could turning them on our own forces be far behind?

But the full story revealed that there really wasn't any hacking going on, and certainly no prospect of seizing control of the drones. Instead, what was happening was the passive downloading of US video transmissions, which were later discovered on captured insurgents laptops.

Since the video streams that the Predators send back to bases across the world aren't encrypted, no security effort was being "breached." And while a number of Shiite insurgent groups in Iraq like the Mahdi Army have received explosives and financial support from the Iranians over the years, no evidence has even been presented that they've received advanced weaponry.

Insurgents used $26 software meant for downloading soccer matches

Advanced Iranian support would certainly not have been needed to target and download what amount to free-to-air transmissions by US Predators, since all it acquired was the $26 Russian software package SkyGrabber, a computer, and a satellite dish. SkyGrabber, along with most types of commercial software, is freely available in Baghdad, where it's popular for its designed purpose: illegally downloading European soccer matches and movie channels without paying hefty satellite subscription fees.

The software is also available for download, including a free version, from the company's website.

The existence of this and other software packages have long infuriated movie and satellite-television agencies, which argue that since they enable viewing of copyrighted broadcasts for free, their use should also be illegal.

To its credit, the Journal did point out that what enabled insurgent access to the videos was a security flaw that the US has known about since the moment the Predator's went into service over the Balkans 15 years ago.

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