The Expert's View

Lessons From the Predator Drone Breach

The ability of Iraqi insurgents to intercept raw video feeds from unmanned Predator drone serves as a clear reminder of how technology can level the playing field in dramatic ways.

In this case, a $26 software utility has the potential to compromise a multi-billion dollar program. I remember reading National Counterintelligence Executive Joel Brenner's remarks at the Armed Forces Communications & Electronics Association Counterintelligence Conference in 2007 on just this issue. In his remarks, Brenner said we can no longer assume that the U.S. has the "technological advantage over our friends and adversaries" and that the world "has gotten flatter." In this case, someone really underestimated the capabilities of the enemy, and it's hard to blame them. Who could have anticipated that people with limited access to running water could find a way to intercept wireless video communications?

If poorly trained insurgents can compromise predator drone video, just imagine what our more sophisticated adversaries are capable of. 

While it does not appear that this vulnerability compromised this very important defense capability, it reminds us how one well-publicized incident can reflect negatively on a program with an otherwise unblemished service record. If you are involved in the design and implementation of systems that need to be reliable and secure, below are several fundamental concepts that underscore and reinforce the importance of security for all types of design projects:

1. Don't assume your adversary works the way you work.

The Iraqi adversaries realized they could use off-the-shelf components to construct a capability to exploit some of the raw video signal coming from the drones. It's possible that during the design of this system, engineers and managers estimated that the enemy would not know how to build a system to intercept the signals (the "build vs. buy" mentality). They didn't have to. A few minutes searching the Internet would yield plenty of ideas for capturing unencrypted video transmissions. When you are working against a determined adversary accustomed to doing more with less, they will identify a way to build countermeasures - however crude - using inexpensive, off-the-shelf parts.

2. Security will always cost you more when it is an after-thought.

The design and support costs for deploying bolt-on security will dwarf the costs of having to integrate the capability into the system design (it's true for software, and certainly true for hardware/software systems). An initial design assessment would have concluded that the drone interception of raw video signals presented a significant threat - the adversary would know they were under surveillance - and this should have been formally discussed, options considered and mitigation techniques identified. Consider the costs of implementing encryption now: updating the receivers already deployed in the field, bolting on this new capability and conducting operational tests, etc. The task has become a lot more complicated now that engineers will need to harden a system that is in production.

3. If poorly trained insurgents can compromise predator drone video, just imagine what our more sophisticated adversaries are capable of.

There will always be someone working to find a way in, and some of them will be successful. The key is to learn to think like our adversaries and find the vulnerabilities and errors before the bad guys do.

Eric M. Fiterman is a former FBI special agent and founder of Methodvue, a consultancy that provides cybersecurity and computer forensics services to the federal government and private businesses.

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