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Wired: Not Just Drones: Militants Can Snoop on Most U.S. Warplanes

Author: Noah Schachtman
December 17, 2009

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Wired's Noah Schachtman reports for the Danger Room on the susceptibility of U.S. Air Force ROVER video systems to hacking.

Tapping into drones' video feeds was just the start. The U.S. military's primary system for bringing overhead surveillance down to soldiers and Marines on the ground is also vulnerable to electronic interception, multiple military sources tell Danger Room. That means militants have the ability to see through the eyes of all kinds of combat aircraft - from traditional fighters and bombers to unmanned spy planes. The problem is in the process of being addressed. But for now, an enormous security breach is even larger than previously thought.

The military initially developed the Remotely Operated Video Enhanced Receiver, or ROVER, in 2002. The idea was let troops on the ground download footage from Predator drones and AC-130 gunships as it was being taken. Since then, nearly every airplane in the American fleet - from F-16 and F/A-18 fighters to†A-10 attack planes to Harrier jump jets to B-1B bombers has been outfitted with equipment that lets them transmit to ROVERs. Thousands of ROVER terminals have been distributed to troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But those early units were "fielded so fast that it was done with an unencrypted signal. It could be both intercepted (e.g. hacked into) and jammed," e-mails an Air Force officer with knowledge of the program. In a presentation last month before a conference of the Army Aviation Association of America, a military official noted that the current ROVER terminal "receives only unencrypted L, C, S, Ku [satellite] bands."

So the same security breach that allowed insurgent to use satellite dishes and $26 software to intercept drone feeds can be used the tap into the video transmissions of any plane.

The military is working to plug the hole - introducing new ROVER models that communicate without spilling its secrets. "Recognizing the potential for future exploitation the Air Force has been working aggressively to encrypt these ROVER downlink signals.†It is my understanding that we have already developed the technical encryption solutions and are fielding them," the Air Force officer notes.

But it won't be easy. An unnamed Pentagon official tells reporters that "this is an old issue that's been addressed." Air Force officers contacted by Danger Room disagree, strongly.

"This is not a trivial solution," one officer observes. "Almost every fighter/bomber/ISR [intelligence surveillance reconnaissance] platform we have in theater has a ROVER downlink. All of our Tactical Air Control Parties and most ground TOCs [tactical operations centers] have ROVER receivers. We need to essentially fix all of the capabilities before a full transition can occur and in the transition most capabilities need to be dual-capable (encrypted and unencrypted)."

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