Reporting from Durham, N.C., and Washington — Iraqi insurgents have intercepted live video feeds from U.S. Predator drones, tapping a key component of the Pentagon's vaunted surveillance and weapons system with a $26 program available on the Internet.
Militants did not hack into any military communications systems, officials said, but instead were able to view raw satellite feeds of live video shot by cameras on the unmanned 27-foot planes. The drones, flown by pilots based in the U.S., use satellite feeds to transmit video.
Officials said they have evidence that video feeds were intercepted in Iraq and do not believe any feeds were intercepted in Afghanistan or Pakistan.
They said video links in key areas have been encrypted since the intercepts were discovered last year, and other systems are in the process of being protected.
According to the Wall Street Journal, which first reported the intercepts Thursday, insurgents used a program called SkyGrabber, made by a Russian company for downloading music, photos and video from the Internet.
A computer belonging to an insurgent captured in Iraq contained files of intercepted drone feeds, the newspaper reported.
There is no evidence that insurgents were able to put the information to any practical use, Pentagon officials said. The feeds did not include targeting or location data, and the quality of the intercepted video was poor, the officials said.
It is not clear whether insurgents were able to determine which feeds they were intercepting, or which areas the feeds covered, according to officials.
Still, the intercepts were a wake-up signal to the Pentagon to upgrade its encryption efforts to ensure that adversaries cannot view video feeds. With enough intercepted videos, insurgents could use the information to help determine what areas a drone is watching and possibly targeting.
Speaking to reporters Thursday, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said the U.S. was continually working to upgrade its technologies to uncover and correct vulnerabilities.
"There are potential vulnerabilities in all of our systems," Whitman said.
An Air Force officer, speaking on condition of anonymity while discussing classified systems, said insurgents viewed only raw video footage. He said they have not had access to data or voice communications, or other intelligence such as targeting or flight information.
The official said the vulnerability of unencrypted satellite video feeds between drones and ground control stations has been a concern for years. But because the Predator system was a demonstration program when it was rushed into combat in Afghanistan in 2001, it did not go through the normal acquisition process to identify and correct shortcomings.
The same vulnerabilities exist with the Reaper, a larger and more powerful upgrade to the Predator, because both remotely piloted systems use similar communications networks and ground control stations.
Retrofitting the communications systems at a time when drones are in short supply in Iraq and Afghanistan is time-consuming, the official said. The U.S. Air Force keeps at least 38 Predators or Reapers in the skies over Iraq and Afghanistan at any given time.
The number of drone combat air patrols over Pakistan, where the CIA operates drones, is classified.
The number of drones in Afghanistan and Iraq has grown exponentially since the first armed Predator demonstrator went into combat eight years ago. There are now more than 7,000 airborne drones in the two war zones, from hand-launched, 1-pound WASP-III micro drones to 116-foot wingspan Global Hawks.
P.W. Singer, author of "Wired for War" and a scholar at the Brookings Institution, said capturing a drone's video feed is not the same as hacking into the entire communications system. It's a case of "listening in" rather than "hacking in," he said.
Singer compared what insurgents have done to someone intercepting the video feed from a police helicopter. That's significantly different than hacking into the department's secure communications system or taking over the flying controls of a police helicopter, he said.
In the case of the military drones, Singer said, the insurgents didn't come close to accomplishing something far more serious, such as interfering with targeting data or the flight of the planes.
"They aren't cracking the entire network," Singer said. "It's the communication at the very end of the line."
Even so, Singer said, any interception of data is a serious security concern because it could be the first step toward other penetrations. The Pentagon is relying more on automated computer and communications systems to fight wars.
Singer said insurgents' interceptions of video feeds are, in part, a result of "laziness and arrogance" by the Pentagon, which didn't encrypt the unmanned systems because officials assumed militants wouldn't be able to figure out how to intercept them.
Singer said the Pentagon knew about the problem in the mid-1990s, when unarmed Predators were used in the Balkans conflict.
Hackers in Eastern Europe were able to intercept Predator video feeds, he said -- but complained that they were unable to intercept encrypted feeds of the Disney Channel.