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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."

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"The potential drone vulnerability lies in an unencrypted downlink between the unmanned craft and ground control," the Journal wrote in the 14th paragraph of the story. "The US government has known about the flaw since the US campaign in Bosnia in the 1990s, current and former officials said. But the Pentagon assumed local adversaries wouldn't know how to exploit it, the officials said."

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That final sentence is a bit worrying, and reflects a common pitfall within the US and many other "sophisticated" armed forces: Officers and war-planners often make the mistake of assuming their enemies are dumb, and not particularly adaptable.

Iraqi insurgents have proved they adapt quickly

If the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have taught anything, it's that insurgents are mighty good at adapting. Those who aren't good at adapting are killed and captured quickly. The smarter ones survive longer and get tactically smarter and more nimble as they go.

That's why the crude improvised explosive devices (IEDS) that bedeviled US troops at the start of the Iraq war evolved into the explosively formed penetrators that could throw slugs of metal through the armored Humvees that were rushed to Iraq to deal with the earlier problem. It's why insurgents switched from using remote-controlled radio detonators (garage-door openers were popular) to detonate these bombs in the early days after the US started deploying jamming equipment. Instead, they started burying detonation wires. And it's why, with few exceptions (the battle for Fallujah, for example), insurgents never massed to fight US forces head on – something that allowed superior US training and aerial supremacy to wipe them out in large numbers

TV stations take more precautions

What's particularly odd about this is that the US military is generally obsessive about keeping its secrets. "Operational security," or "op-sec" is often given as a reason why Marines calling home from Iraq aren't allowed to say what Iraqi province they're in, or when they might be coming home. On more than one occasion I walked into briefing rooms on US bases that sent soldiers on duty scrambling to turn white-boards with mission planning information or local intelligence on them towards the wall.

But as Nate Anderson, writing on the Arstechnica website, points out, fewer measures were taken to thwart interception of the sensitive intelligence provided by drones – which the US military has increasingly come to rely on – than commercial television stations and DVD manufacturers take.

"Operating system vendors have built entire "protected path" setups to guard audio and video all the way through the device chain. TVs and monitors now routinely use HDCP copy protection to secure their links over HDMI cable,'' he writes. "But US drones, which spy on militants and rain down death from a distance, have none. The mind boggles."

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