Drones vulnerable to hijacking, concerns on security and privacy

Pierluigi Paganini July 02, 2012

Last week a saw a satellite image taken by Google Earth related to a mysterious vehicle, apparently an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), parked at Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works facility in Palmdale, California.

“Skunk Works” LM’s Advanced Development Program Facility is where some of the most futuristic and secret projects are developed. The image was dated 2011, Dec. 4, but it has been published only last week in a blog post by George Kaplan, an “open source” intelligence analyst.

Lockheed firm has already worked on the design of drone for reconnaissance and surveillance purposes, the dimensions calculable from the image suggest that the photographed aircraft match the one ones for wingspan of Lockheed’s secretive RQ-170 Sentinel, also a Skunk Works design.

The secret drone was sighted for the first time in Afghanistan’s Kandahar Air Field in 2007, later the Air Force confessed to use it for surveillance operations.

On December 4th, similar drone was captured by Iranian forces near the Iran-Afghanistan border. The event represented for the Iran an opportunity to make propaganda on its technological capabilities, sustaining the drone was hijacked with a sophisticated cyber attack.

Once captured the vehicle, the Iranian experts have had the opportunity to study the technological jewel, its maintenance logs indicated that it, or at least parts of it, had been sent back to Palmdale from Afghanistan for maintenance.

Obviously the photo generated great interest and many experts have expressed different opinions, some argue that it is a new project that will compete for a government supply with products developed by companies such as Boeing, Northrop Grumman and General Atomics, other analysts sustain that a new secret project could not be exposed in a parking area in this way.

The usage of drones has become increasingly common, for surveillance purposes but also to conduct attacks, it represents an indispensable military option that could preserve human lives in dangerous operations.

Drone aircrafts are able to monitor large territories, spy on and attack terrorists groups with no human intervention.  We registered several operations in which these powerful weapons have been used, In Pakistan and Yemen for example against al Qaeda exponents, and also in Somalia where President Obama secretly authorized two drone strikes and two commando raids against terrorists.

Don’t forget the massive usage in Iranian region for surveillance purpose with the intent of collect any kind of information on the evolution of Iranian nuclear program.

But the use of these deadly vehicles raises several thorny issues:

  • Devices such as UAVs are used in military reprisals conducted secretly, its legality is much debated. U.S. military has launched several lethal attacks on terrorist targets all over the world, but according specialists on government secrecy issues, the congressional oversight of these operations appears to be cursory and insufficient. The specialist  Steven Aftergood declared :

“It is Congress‘ responsibility to declare war under the Constitution, but instead it appears to have adopted a largely passive role while the executive takes the initiative in war fighting.”

  • Another sensible problem is the real security level of these vehicles. They are based on high technological components, and we know that nothing is totally secure. In internet are circulating news regarding the vulnerabilities of US drones that seems to be exploitable allowing to hackers to take control of the vehicle. Recently a team of researchers of the University of Texas at Austin, has led a successful attack accepting the challenge of the Department of Homeland Security.  The event is really dangerous, if the enemies takes control of the drone they could use it as weapon. The spoofing is not the only attacks that can hit a GPS drone, we have already spoken of GPS signal jamming. Jamming GPS signal could for example force it into an automatic landing mode the aircraft. Spoofing a GPS receiver on a UAV is possible to manipulate navigation computers providing fake information. The Professor Todd Humphreys, declared to Fox News

“In 5 or 10 years you have 30,000 drones in the airspace,”“Each one of these could be a potential missile used against us.”

  • Let’s consider that the use of drone could be extended for surveillance of territory made by law enforcement in several countries, for this reason it must be defined new rules to allow government and commercial use of UAVs. In US Congress ordered the Federal Aviation Administration to define the rules within 2015. Also private companies such has FedEx announced that they intend to use drone for their activities, with obvious impact on privacy and security.
  • Last concern about the use of drones is the real capacity of Western industry in protecting its projects and technological solutions. Foreign governments, China first, are specialized in cyber espionage and daily we read news on the violation of intellectual property. Cyber attacks, network exploit, targeted malware are all methods to steal industrial secrets on special project such as the drone’s one.

The deep knowledge of these secrets related to the technology used in the design of drones raises security concerns, on our head could fly our drones that could be used to attacks our territories … and it’s not science fiction.

Pierluigi Paganini






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