Iran: Spoofing Brought Down U.S. Drone

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Iran says that knowledge it gained through reverse engineering less sophisticated drones allowed it to trick an RQ-170 Sentinel drone into landing itself there, nearly undamaged, in early December. An Iranian engineer says specialists reconfigured the drone's GPS coordinates to tell the aircraft it was actually landing at its base in Afghanistan, the Christian Science Monitor reported Friday. The technique, called "spoofing," means that the Iranians did not need to crack the vehicle's encrypted remote-control systems or communications. According to the Monitor's source, the spoofing simply led the vehicle to land "on its own where we wanted it to." If true, and experts appear to believe it's plausible, this wouldn't be the first time U.S. drone systems have been compromised, but may be the culmination of previous efforts.

In October, AVweb told readers that reports had surfaced about U.S. military drones being infected by a key-logging virus. Unconfirmed reports stated the virus was first detected at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. The military continued to operate drones in Afghanistan and elsewhere at the time. And back in 2009, U.S. forces found drone video streams saved to the laptops of Iraqi insurgents. The systems were reportedly hacked with readily available software to obtain real-time video feeds from drones as they were transmitted via publicly available satellite transponders. U.S. defense personnel have downplayed concern about the potential transfer of leading-edge stealth technology, saying even the Sentinel's systems are somewhat dated. They also concede that more technologically robust nations (like Russia and China) may be able to create advanced radar profiling based on intimate knowledge of the vehicle's shape. With that, it's possible the stealth qualities of the RQ-170 could be compromised. As for the drone's electronics, the military is staying quiet. That has led informed observers to wonder if the Sentinel's systems are adequately protected by electronic defenses designed to prevent unauthorized access.