SkyGrabber: Is hacking military drones too easy?

Insurgents in Iraq used SkyGrabber – cheap Windows software – to hack unmanned Predator planes, the Pentagon says.

Jonathan Snyder / US Air Force / Sipa Press / File
SkyGrabber and similar software has been used to capture military feeds from Predator unmanned aerial vehicles, such as this one in Ali Base, Iraq.

Hollywood makes it look as if terrorists need complicated equipment and a criminal super-genius to tap into US military drones. In fact, a $26 computer program would do the trick.

US defense officials admitted to The Wall Street Journal that insurgents in Iraq have used SkyGrabber, a downloadable program, to hack into video feeds from Predators planes. According to unnamed sources cited by the Journal, Iranian-backed groups have intercepted satellite data, allowing them to view, record, and share video relayed by these pilotless vehicles. While the information could be used to spy on military intelligence and troop locations, there's no reason to believe the hackers can affect the Predators nor access anything other than raw video.

The setup requires a PC, satellite dish, satellite modem, and software such as SkyGrabber, which was developed by the Russian firm SkySoftware. Because of Iraq and Afghanistan's rough terrain, military officials cannot assume the Predators will have a clean, line-of-sight connection with the bases that send them orders. To work around the problem, the drones switch to satellite linkups. However, unlike credit card payments and cellphone calls, this military satellite data is not encrypted.

Once the insurgents learned the Predator video was unencrypted, they basically pitched their TV antennas and enjoyed the show. The information was unprotected because of financial and technical inertia delaying network upgrades, the Journal article said, but the Pentagon is now securing all of its feeds in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

This summer, the US uncovered "days and days and hours and hours" of intercepted video on militants' laptops, according to one of the Journal's anonymous sources. "It is part of their kit now."

And a dastardly simple part at that. Secretly tapping into satellite feeds has been a trick played by teenage would-be hackers for some time, although they rarely – if ever – snatched anything as sensitive as these Predator videos. As with many things online, the software falls in a moral gray area. SkySoftware's website says the program "intercepts satellite data (movie, music, pictures) that downloadind [sic.] by other users and saves information in your hard disk. So, you'll get new movie, best music and funny pictures for free."

A company programmer told the Journal that SkyGrabber was never designed to target unmanned planes – "no military data or other commercial data, only free legal content."


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