Dr. Thomas Boghardt, Historian
Today The Wall Street Journal ran an article revealing that militants inside Iraq have hacked U.S. Predator drones and were able to access real time information used by the military.
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or drones, are used extensively by the CIA and Pentagon to conduct surveillance, as well as identify and kill insurgents and terrorists. In fact, armed drones have eliminated half of the CIA’s twenty most wanted “high value” targets, including Saad bin Laden, Osama’s oldest son. A few months ago, CIA director Leon Panetta even referred to the drone program as “the only game in town.”
Given the drones’ central role in America’s counter-insurgency and anti-terrorism efforts, it is worrisome to learn that Iran-backed Iraqi insurgents this summer successfully hacked into a drone feed and downloaded large amounts of surveillance footage (which the U.S. military later discovered on a laptop belonging to a Shiite militant). To date, there is no indication that any drones have been manipulated, but the implications are troublesome.
As successful as the drones have been tactically, their usage is controversial. Missiles fired from drones have killed numerous innocent civilians—exact numbers are hard to come by—further complicating America’s already difficult relationship with Pakistan, where many of the strikes were conducted. What if someone hacked into a drone and fired a U.S.-made hellfire missile into a major Pakistani city? True, it is a far-fetched scenario, but then again, who would have imagined that insurgents could have downloaded highly classified drone video footage simply by using commercially available software, as happened this summer?
Nothing is What It Seems
In my opinion, it was a mistake to field a weapon system against a known internet-savvy enemy with a vulnerability of an unencrypted video stream (known since the 1990s) without first correcting this security hole.