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.

Vahid Salemi/AP/File
A model of a US RQ-170 Sentinel Drone, captured by Iran in December near the border with Afghanistan, is displayed in front of the Azadi (freedom) tower, as a boy holds a poster showing supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, at a rally in Tehran, Iran, on Feb. 11.
J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File
In this March 7 file photo, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington. Panetta on Monday dismissed Tehran's claims that it has recovered data from a US spy drone that went down in Iran late last year. Without providing details, Panetta said that 'based on my experience that I would seriously question their ability to do what they say they have done.'

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.

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.

"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 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.

American officials dismissed Iran's assertions as overblown.

"It's obviously a classified program and I don't want to get into the particulars of that program," US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters on Monday. "But I think I can tell you based on my experience that I would seriously question their ability to do what they say they have done."

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I) of Connecticut told Fox News on April 22 that "there is a history here of Iranian bluster, particularly now when they are on the defensive because of our economic sanctions" over Iran's controversial nuclear program.

But analysts say the precise details given by Iran about the history of this drone indicate that the drone's on-board data banks are intact and could well have been hacked.

"One problem is that [the Iranians] tend to overstate, so that works against them, [while] the US Department of Defense and politicians have a tendency to diminish the capabilities of other countries," says Jeffrey Carr, a cybersecurity expert who runs his own security company, Taia Global.

"It's much safer to assume that Iran is at least as capable as some of its hackers, and some of its hackers have proven to be very capable," says Mr. Carr, author of the book "Inside Cyber Warfare."

"Iran is committed to developing its cyber warfare capabilities, it has been working on it for awhile. The countries that are best at it tend to be those most under attack, and Iran certainly has been," says Carr, contacted in Seattle.

"There is some like likelihood that Iran has been successful" decoding the drone, he adds. "It's a mistake just to assume our technology is completely safe, and that Iran is not capable of cracking it."

Mysterious disappearance

Mystery has surrounded the loss of the drone since it left on a mission from its base in Afghanistan, and then disappeared on Nov. 29. Until Iran claimed to have captured it, the US government had just once confirmed that a stealth drone program even existed, much less that one was flying deep into Iranian airspace to spy on nuclear facilities.

Soon after the drone was shown on Iranian state TV and President Obama admitted that the US had asked Iran to return the drone – a request Iran rejected – an Iranian engineer working on one of the teams trying to unlock the drone's secrets told the Monitor how Iran had exploited a navigational weakness to jam and confuse the drone, causing it to land in Iran.

Such a weakness had long been known to the US military. Iran proclaimed in September 2011 a new capability that could redefine the GPS coordinates of guided missiles and slower-moving drones. The same month, the US Air Force awarded two $47 million contracts to modernize vulnerable GPS systems, and noted that modernization "will enhance the jam resistance of the military GPS service, making it more robust."

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.

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 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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