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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.

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Iranian officials declared the drone capture an intelligence "coup" for Iran, but US officials and analysts originally downplayed chances that Iran would ever have access to the drone's equivalent of a electronic black box.

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Yet the possibility that Iran might gain that access was foreshadowed by a leak in February, when Fox News reported on a 10-week CIA investigation into the loss of the drone.

CIA investigation into drone loss

While the drone is believed to be programmed to erase data in the event of a malfunction to prevent it from falling into enemy hands, the story claimed that investigators believed that one of the drone's three primary data streams began sending back bad information to its US-based operators.

The faulty data stream may have prevented the drone from dumping the data it collected, Fox reported, and perhaps prompted the drone to land itself. A "congressional official" familiar with the CIA review categorically stated to Fox that the drone loss "was not the result of Iranian interference or jamming" – a surprising conclusion, some analysts note, since the CIA reportedly could not determine the actual cause.

After the Fox story in February, an analysis on AviationIntel.com said that if the drone had landed with its computer banks "stuffed full of recorded data and operating software" – though admittedly a speculative "worst-case scenario" – "it has the potential to render all US drones, their communications infrastructure and command protocol, incredibly vulnerable, akin to giving the enemy the keys to America's unmanned castle."

China, Russia may get top-secret technology

Separating fact from fiction has never been easy regarding the Islamic Republic. The stealth drone saga continues amid a backdrop of increasing sanctions against Iran to compel it to halt its uranium enrichment and nuclear programs. A covert war over the years has also seen Iran targeted by a host of assassinations of nuclear scientists, espionage actions, unexplained explosions, and the Stuxnet computer virus.

Among Iran's closest allies on the United Nations Security Council have been China and Russia, trading partners that have been reluctant to impose more sanctions on Tehran – and may stand to benefit from the captured drone, if they have not already.

Some experts also suggest that the Chinese and Russians may have offered military, radar, and entrapment capabilities to the Iranians, in exchange for the possibility of being able to help the Iranians bring down an RQ-170 and share in technical exploitation. Iranian officials in recent days stated that Beijing and Moscow "have been most aggressive in their pursuit of details" about the drone, according to Fars News.

"Anything associated with this drone is going to be high-value information, not only for Iran, but for lots of countries," says cyber expert Carr. "They would most likely be able to get a good trade from both China and Russia, in terms of sharing the technology."

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