Saturday, December 19, 2009


I've been busier than a one-armed paper hanger with an itch - closing out the month - and haven't had time to tend to Blog STORMBRINGER . . .

MQ-9 Reaper armed with GBU-12 Paveway II laser guided munitions and AGM-114 Hellfire missiles

The headlines read:

Insurgents Hack U.S. Drones
$26 Software Is Used to Breach Key Weapons in Iraq; Iranian Backing Suspected

When I heard this story on Thursday I thought right away, 'this isn't such a big deal.' If for no other reason that live video isn't encrypted.

Text and voice signal can be encrypted, but video is such a LARGE bundle of one's and zero's that it's hard to send live in the first place. Trying to encrypt and send live video - well, I won't say it's impossible, but it'd be damn hard to achieve.

Live video eats up so much signal and bandwidth on the electromagnetic spectrum, that it's hard for ground pounders to even get a frequency to use vid, never mind the power source necessary to send the stuff.

But I'm just a lowly knuckledragging Neanderthal, what do I know? SO . . . I ran it past the team techie - our "Q" - and he confirmed what I already suspected: video can't be encrypted (as far as he knows, and he knows a LOT). Ergo this is NOT hacking, this is eavesdropping:

This from the AP:

Dale Meyerrose, former chief information officer for the U.S. intelligence community, compared the problem to street criminals listening to police scanners.

"This was just one of the signals, a broadcast signal, and there was no hacking. It is the interception of a broadcast signal," said Meyerrose, who worked to field the unmanned systems in the 1990s, when he was a senior Air Force officer.

The problem, he said, is that when the drones were first being developed they were using commercial equipment, which as time goes on could become vulnerable to intercepts.

There is a tendency to de-humanize your enemies, and to underestimate them - especially if they are Asians or Africans.

The Taliban have displayed some ingenuity here, granted, but this does not put them in the same category as the SpyKids.


  1. Sean,
    Well put sir, and all true. Though I'm not sure if the video is "unecryptable" so much as the encryption would make feed quality so low as to be junk. And we all know that if the generals can't have crystal clear "pred porn" then the terrorists win... or something...

  2. I was also talking at work with people who know encryption. The consensus (of people who unlike me know encryption) was that encryption (at least to the point that real-time viewing by the adversary would not be possible) would work. If your goal is to make sure the enemy cannot see what you are staring at, that seems to be an attainable goal.

    I do wonder how electrically noisy the sky over Afghanistan and northern Pakistan is. Knowing that there is a Predator overhead (even if they can't read the video feed) would also be useful information unless we have so damn many of them that there is usually a Predator in line of sight looking at something.

  3. Seems like it would be pretty easy to put an extra iPods worth of electronics in a drone that could hold a dozen hours of canned footage with appropraite time of day/weather conditions. By multiplexing the true signal with several false signals and using a encrypted control uplink so that the people on the ground can control when/if and on what "channel" the true signal fed, you could effectively make the terrorists take worthless.

    If you really wanted to be sneaky, just multiplex with the playboy channel and then you'd be guaranteed no one in a cave in Afgan would be watching the drone transmission.

  4. Is everyone with a Fuzzbuster or a First Responder frequency radio scanner "Hacking" the police?

  5. While encryption may not be possible I wonder if anyone thought of proprietary format and hardware for the video feeds it at least would be a step up from the “off the shelf” stuff that was supposed to save taxpayers money

  6. G'Willie -- commercial off-the-shelf hardware will save buckets of money and be much more maintainable. There is no reason why you can't make such systems secure.

    Proprietary hardware leads to multi-thousand-dollar nuts and bolts.

  7. Encryption doesn't necessarily bloat a data stream, it merely makes it unreadable. An encrypted data stream uses the same bandwidth as a non-encrypted one.

    The number-crunching (encryption) needs to be done prior to transmission and that requires powerful hardware which you may be able to fit into the airframe. But, you would also need a similar setup to decrypt on the fly at the receivers' end - and if this is grunts on the ground then I'm not sure they'd want, or be able, to carry it.

    Great blog btw, I found you via Theo and I keep coming back for more.

  8. The sky over Afghanistan is getting crowded and will get even more so in the near future. I'm reading that the noise factor is getting in the way sometimes also.

    As an ol' grunt I can see the benifits of knowing what is going on around me in real time with a god's eye view.

    If they fix the audio where it is fumoxed to the enemy I don't see much use in them watching themselves get blowed up, except of course the blowing up part. But there are more and more english speakers in our enemy camps (including the two here in the U.S.- Islamics and democrats) so the audio needs fixing asap. Maybe we need som "codetalkers" worked good in the past, could work again.

    Papa Ray

  9. The media is so sad. They report it wrong, a year after the military found the problem and solved it.

  10. A $129 piece of hardware will encode HD video to H.264 in realtime (eg the ElGato devices).

    Now, encryption isn't video re-encoding - it's easier (in terms of hardware required per unit of data).

    There is no way that it's physically difficult to encrypt live video streams, if you're willing to put a little encryption hardware on both ends.

    (And by "a little" I mean "maybe $20 and the size of a stick of gum". Of course, the software and systems issues are considerably more complicated and expensive and require lots of testing, but they're solved problems in general.)

    (And like Daniel P. said, they're saying they fixed most of the issues before this came out - and those they haven't are doubtless because the systems in question aren't amenable to patchwork fixes.

    Maybe it was really hard to do live streaming encrypted video fifteen years ago when the drones were relatively new.

    It's not hard now. Retrofits suck, but there's no reason at all for any new systems to not be encrypted quite securely.)