Militants in Iraq and Afghanistan have intercepted live video feeds from unmanned US Predator drones using US$26 off-the-shelf software made by a Russian company, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal.
Although there is little evidence that the break-in allowed militants to take actual control of the drones or interfere with their flights, the video interception could give them vital information on targets under US surveillance, the report said.
Iranian-backed insurgents in Iraq have been able to intercept the video feeds using a program called SkyGrabber, from Russian company SkySoftware, the Journal reported. The company describes SkyGrabber as an "offline satellite internet downloader designed to intercept music, photos, video, programs and "funny pictures" for free.
Users don't need an internet connection to use it. "Just customise your satellite dish to selected satellite provider and start grabbing," the company claims on its website. "If you want to have the newest software for free, SkyGrabber is your choice," the site says while extolling the software's graphical interface and filtering capabilities.
The militants are said to have been using SkyGrabber instead to tap into feeds from the Predator drones that are being used increasingly to support military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
They have apparently been able to do so because the feeds being sent by some of the unmanned drones to ground control are unencrypted. It is an issue that the US military has apparently known since its campaign in Bosnia in the 1990's but is beginning to be addressed only now.
The problem was discovered late last year when the US military arrested a Shiite militant and found a laptop containing intercepted drone feeds. Similar feeds were later discovered on laptops belonging to numerous other militants leading the military to believe that groups funded and trained by Iran where behind the interception, the Journal said.
Most of the feeds that were intercepted were in Iran, but evidence has been found showing that similar interceptions have been taking place in Afghanistan as well.
A defence offical said late today that the Pentagon had "fixed" the security hole that had allowed hackers to access the drones' video feeds.