Iran's cyber prowess: Could it really have cracked drone codes?
Iran claims it hacked into the data banks of a captured CIA stealth drone. US officials dismiss it as 'bluster,' but aviation and cyber experts say it's possible.
Iran claims to have unlocked the data secrets of the CIA stealth drone captured during a spy mission over Iran in December, signaling to Washington that the data was not destroyed and that Iran can crack the encryption codes.Skip to next paragraph
The bat-wing RQ-170 Sentinel drone "had many different codes and passwords and other obstacles but by the help of God it became possible," the aerospace chief of Iran's Revolutionary Guard, Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, told state TV on April 22.
"All of this has been decoded by us and we have unlimited intelligence right now regarding this plane and its activities," he said, giving specific examples, including the use of the drone to spy on Osama bin Laden's hideout two weeks before the US raid that killed him.
Iran has in the past exaggerated its technical and military capabilities. But experts say that there is also a history of the US underestimating Iran's electronic warfare and cyber expertise.
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"The problem with Iran is they cry wolf a lot, and we never know what to believe, and people get desensitized to real information," says Tyler Rogoway, who publishes the AviationIntel.com website from Portland, Ore.
"But when you have a fairly serious commander that runs their aerospace division, and he goes into these specific details – not these large, overreaching triumphant [declarations] – he's talking about real things ... that's a message to the [US] government, 'Hey, we caught you.’"
Iran provides specific details of drone's missions, maintenance
Hajizadeh said he provided "four cues ... to let the Americans know how deep we could penetrate into [the intelligence systems and devices of] this drone," according to Fars News, which is linked to the Revolutionary Guard.
The Iranian general laid out specific details of the drone's maintenance and mission history: Work was done in California on Oct. 16, 2010, and the drone flew a mission from Kandahar, Afghanistan, on Nov. 18, 2010, he said. Technical problems brought the drone back in Dec. 2010 to Los Angeles – close to the Lockheed Martin Skunk Works location at Palmdale, Calif., where the drone was made.
Hajizadeh also stated that two weeks prior to the assassination raid on the bin Laden compound in May 2, 2011, the drone had flown a mission "right on top of his hiding spot," and had made other flights into Pakistani airspace.
Tehran also renewed previous claims that it would reverse-engineer the drone and produce its own copy.