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History, Geography, & Military Discuss Exclusive: Iran hijacked US drone, says Iranian engineer at the Political Forums; " In an exclusive interview, an engineer working to unlock the secrets of the captured RQ-170 Sentinel says they exploited ...

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Old 12-15-2011, 12:48 PM
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Default Exclusive: Iran hijacked US drone, says Iranian engineer

"In an exclusive interview, an engineer working to unlock the secrets of the captured RQ-170 Sentinel says they exploited a known vulnerability and tricked the US drone into landing in Iran

December 15, 2011

Istanbul, Turkey

Iran guided the CIA's "lost" stealth drone to an intact landing inside hostile territory by exploiting a navigational weakness long-known to the US military, according to an Iranian engineer now working on the captured drone's systems inside Iran.

Iranian electronic warfare specialists were able to cut off communications links of the American bat-wing RQ-170 Sentinel, says the engineer, who works for one of many Iranian military and civilian teams currently trying to unravel the drone’s stealth and intelligence secrets, and who could not be named for his safety.

Using knowledge gleaned from previous downed American drones and a technique proudly claimed by Iranian commanders in September, the Iranian specialists then reconfigured the drone's GPS coordinates to make it land in Iran at what the drone thought was its actual home base in Afghanistan.


"The GPS navigation is the weakest point," the Iranian engineer told the Monitor, giving the most detailed description yet published of Iran's "electronic ambush" of the highly classified US drone. "By putting noise [jamming] on the communications, you force the bird into autopilot. This is where the bird loses its brain."

The “spoofing” technique that the Iranians used – which took into account precise landing altitudes, as well as latitudinal and longitudinal data – made the drone “land on its own where we wanted it to, without having to crack the remote-control signals and communications” from the US control center, says the engineer.

The revelations about Iran's apparent electronic prowess come as the US, Israel, and some European nations appear to be engaged in an ever-widening covert war with Iran, which has seen assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists, explosions at Iran's missile and industrial facilities, and the Stuxnet computer virus that set back Iran’s nuclear program.

Now this engineer’s account of how Iran took over one of America’s most sophisticated drones suggests Tehran has found a way to hit back. The techniques were developed from reverse-engineering several less sophisticated American drones captured or shot down in recent years, the engineer says, and by taking advantage of weak, easily manipulated GPS signals, which calculate location and speed from multiple satellites.


Western military experts and a number of published papers on GPS spoofing indicate that the scenario described by the Iranian engineer is plausible.

"Even modern combat-grade GPS [is] very susceptible” to manipulation, says former US Navy electronic warfare specialist Robert Densmore, adding that it is “certainly possible” to recalibrate the GPS on a drone so that it flies on a different course. “I wouldn't say it's easy, but the technology is there.”

In 2009, Iran-backed Shiite militants in Iraq were found to have downloaded live, unencrypted video streams from American Predator drones with inexpensive, off-the-shelf software. But Iran’s apparent ability now to actually take control of a drone is far more significant.

Iran asserted its ability to do this in September, as pressure mounted over its nuclear program.

Gen. Moharam Gholizadeh, the deputy for electronic warfare at the air defense headquarters of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), described to Fars News how Iran could alter the path of a GPS-guided missile – a tactic more easily applied to a slower-moving drone.

“We have a project on hand that is one step ahead of jamming, meaning ‘deception’ of the aggressive systems,” said Gholizadeh, such that “we can define our own desired information for it so the path of the missile would change to our desired destination.”

Gholizadeh said that “all the movements of these [enemy drones]” were being watched, and “obstructing” their work was “always on our agenda.”

That interview has since been pulled from Fars’ Persian-language website. And last month, the relatively young Gholizadeh died of a heart attack, which some Iranian news sites called suspicious – suggesting the electronic warfare expert may have been a casualty in the covert war against Iran.

Iran's growing electronic capabilities
Iranian lawmakers say the drone capture is a "great epic" and claim to be "in the final steps of breaking into the aircraft's secret code."

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta told Fox News on Dec. 13 that the US will "absolutely" continue the drone campaign over Iran, looking for evidence of any nuclear weapons work. But the stakes are higher for such surveillance, now that Iran can apparently disrupt the work of US drones.

US officials skeptical of Iran’s capabilities blame a malfunction, but so far can't explain how Iran acquired the drone intact. One American analyst ridiculed Iran’s capability, telling Defense News that the loss was “like dropping a Ferrari into an ox-cart technology culture.”

Yet Iran’s claims to the contrary resonate more in light of new details about how it brought down the drone – and other markers that signal growing electronic expertise.

A former senior Iranian official who asked not to be named said: "There are a lot of human resources in Iran.... Iran is not like Pakistan."

“Technologically, our distance from the Americans, the Zionists, and other advanced countries is not so far to make the downing of this plane seem like a dream for us … but it could be amazing for others,” deputy IRGC commander Gen. Hossein Salami said this week.

According to a European intelligence source, Iran shocked Western intelligence agencies in a previously unreported incident that took place sometime in the past two years, when it managed to “blind” a CIA spy satellite by “aiming a laser burst quite accurately.”

More recently, Iran was able to hack Google security certificates, says the engineer. In September, the Google accounts of 300,000 Iranians were made accessible by hackers. The targeted company said "circumstantial evidence" pointed to a "state-driven attack" coming from Iran, meant to snoop on users.

Cracking the protected GPS coordinates on the Sentinel drone was no more difficult, asserts the engineer.

US knew of GPS systems' vulnerability

Use of drones has become more risky as adversaries like Iran hone countermeasures. The US military has reportedly been aware of vulnerabilities with pirating unencrypted drone data streams since the Bosnia campaign in the mid-1990s.

Top US officials said in 2009 that they were working to encrypt all drone data streams in Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan – after finding militant laptops loaded with days' worth of data in Iraq – and acknowledged that they were "subject to listening and exploitation."

Perhaps as easily exploited are the GPS navigational systems upon which so much of the modern military depends.

"GPS signals are weak and can be easily outpunched [overridden] by poorly controlled signals from television towers, devices such as laptops and MP3 players, or even mobile satellite services," Andrew Dempster, a professor from the University of New South Wales School of Surveying and Spatial Information Systems, told a March conference on GPS vulnerability in Australia.

"This is not only a significant hazard for military, industrial, and civilian transport and communication systems, but criminals have worked out how they can jam GPS," he says.

The US military has sought for years to fortify or find alternatives to the GPS system of satellites, which are used for both military and civilian purposes. In 2003, a “Vulnerability Assessment Team” at Los Alamos National Laboratory published research explaining how weak GPS signals were easily overwhelmed with a stronger local signal.

“A more pernicious attack involves feeding the GPS receiver fake GPS signals so that it believes it is located somewhere in space and time that it is not,” reads the Los Alamos report. “In a sophisticated spoofing attack, the adversary would send a false signal reporting the moving target’s true position and then gradually walk the target to a false position.”

The vulnerability remains unresolved, and a paper presented at a Chicago communications security conference in October laid out parameters for successful spoofing of both civilian and military GPS units to allow a "seamless takeover" of drones or other targets.

To “better cope with hostile electronic attacks,” the US Air Force in late September awarded two $47 million contracts to develop a "navigation warfare" system to replace GPS on aircraft and missiles, according to the Defense Update website.

Official US data on GPS describes "the ongoing GPS modernization program" for the Air Force, which "will enhance the jam resistance of the military GPS service, making it more robust."

Why the drone's underbelly was damaged

Iran's drone-watching project began in 2007, says the Iranian engineer, and then was stepped up and became public in 2009 – the same year that the RQ-170 was first deployed in Afghanistan with what were then state-of-the-art surveillance systems. .... click on the linc to read the end of the article.


* Scott Peterson, the Monitor's Middle East correspondent, wrote this story with an Iranian journalist who publishes under the pen name Payam Faramarzi and cannot be further identified for security reasons.

Exclusive: Iran hijacked US drone, says Iranian engineer - CSMonitor.com

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Old 12-15-2011, 01:49 PM
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Default Re: Exclusive: Iran hijacked US drone, says Iranian engineer

I have some experience developing GPS systems and I'd agree that this is the most likely scenario - especially since the drone appears undamaged in the photos. It's still a pretty sophisticated hijacking, but rather simple for Iran and it doesn't take much equipment - really just a computer, military GPS receiver, and a spread spectrum transmitter.

What I wonder is why Iran would admit to doing it this way?
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Old 12-15-2011, 02:07 PM
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Default Re: Exclusive: Iran hijacked US drone, says Iranian engineer

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Originally Posted by skrekk View Post
I have some experience developing GPS systems and I'd agree that this is the most likely scenario - especially since the drone appears undamaged in the photos. It's still a pretty sophisticated hijacking, but rather simple for Iran and it doesn't take much equipment - really just a computer, military GPS receiver, and a spread spectrum transmitter.

What I wonder is why Iran would admit to doing it this way?
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Old 12-15-2011, 02:40 PM
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Default Re: Exclusive: Iran hijacked US drone, says Iranian engineer

Keep in mind that this may have been "allowed" to happen. If the CIA wanted to know how far Iran has gotten in this kind of technonlogy, this is one way to find out. I hope that the next step is to send in a drone with a little "surprise" attached so that the retrieval team gets a little motivation when it comes to getting within 10' of one of our drones.
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Old 12-15-2011, 04:15 PM
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Default Re: Exclusive: Iran hijacked US drone, says Iranian engineer

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Originally Posted by faithful_servant View Post
I hope that the next step is to send in a drone with a little "surprise" attached so that the retrieval team gets a little motivation when it comes to getting within 10' of one of our drones.
That certainly would be consistent with the other terrorism the US has committed against Iran over the past 30 years.
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Old 12-15-2011, 04:30 PM
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Default Re: Exclusive: Iran hijacked US drone, says Iranian engineer

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Originally Posted by OldMercsRule View Post
Iranian electronic warfare specialists were able to cut off communications links of the American bat-wing RQ-170 Sentinel, says the engineer, who works for one of many Iranian military and civilian teams currently trying to unravel the drone’s stealth and intelligence secrets, and who could not be named for his safety.

Using knowledge gleaned from previous downed American drones and a technique proudly claimed by Iranian commanders in September, the Iranian specialists then reconfigured the drone's GPS coordinates to make it land in Iran at what the drone thought was its actual home base in Afghanistan.
I bet they did it all with an iPhone.

Be cautious in believing this story. We have no idea at this moment in time how Iran managed to get their hands on this drone.

Too early and not enough evidence to form any solid opinions.
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Old 12-15-2011, 04:34 PM
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Default Re: Exclusive: Iran hijacked US drone, says Iranian engineer

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Originally Posted by faithful_servant View Post
Keep in mind that this may have been "allowed" to happen.
There are far more logical ways of determining Iran's capability regarding this issue besides allowing them to acquire an actual drone and allowing them to obtain top secret and highly advanced technological information, which will most likely be sold or given to China and/or Russia.

Sounds like a conspiracy theory. Shall we expect Jesse Ventura to do an hour-long special on this when he is finished reporting on all of his other conspiracy theories?
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Old 12-15-2011, 04:38 PM
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Default Re: Exclusive: Iran hijacked US drone, says Iranian engineer

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Originally Posted by skrekk View Post

What I wonder is why Iran would admit to doing it this way?
Which is why the story is suspect.

Is it true? Maybe, maybe not. But admitting it would be a serious tactical flaw.

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Old 12-15-2011, 06:46 PM
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Default Re: Exclusive: Iran hijacked US drone, says Iranian engineer

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Which is why the story is suspect.
The other thing is that all the photos I've seen have the undercarriage masked by curtains and flags, which might indicate that the drone had a hard landing.
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Old 12-15-2011, 08:39 PM
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Default Re: Exclusive: Iran hijacked US drone, says Iranian engineer

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Originally Posted by Comet View Post
I bet they did it all with an iPhone.

Be cautious in believing this story. We have no idea at this moment in time how Iran managed to get their hands on this drone.

Too early and not enough evidence to form any solid opinions.
The news about this and other drone issues is murky n' full of parties who have an interest in shaping said news, so yer warning is worth pondering.

BlackAsCoal, (an inactive member here), posted this very informative article from 2010 on another forum.

Methinks they hacked us, and exploited a vulnerability we have had for a long time.


"Featured, Student Articles — February 22, 2010 7:54 pm NSJ Analysis:

Increasing Use of Unmanned Drones Raises Data Security Issues

As part of the continuing war in Afghanistan, the United States has made extensive use of unmanned Predator drones to carry out reconnaissance as well as armed strikes. On Monday The New York Times reported that a U.S. drone killed three militants in North Waziristan, and on Friday CNN reported that a Haqqani network commander was killed in a drone strike. The use of unmanned aircraft is likely to continue expanding: The Washington Post reports that the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command continues to search for a dedicated unmanned intelligence-gathering airship. Although drones can ensure mission capability while avoiding casualties, they are not perfect.

Drones raise unique security issues as their data streams, and possibly control streams, must be secured. Unlike a manned airplane controlled from a cockpit and generally involving a closed system of control, a drone is often remote-controlled through a two-way data stream carried over sometimes thousands of miles. Such data streams can be vulnerable to hacking, like any computer network. According to the Wall Street Journal, in December 2009, militants in Iraq were able to hack a drone’s video feed using low cost off-the-shelf software. While there was no evidence that the militants were able to take control of the drone, they were able to download and see the drone’s video feed, perhaps allowing them to evade U.S. operations.

The stark difference between resource requirements between the militant hackers and the U.S. military is telling. While Reaper drones like the one hacked can cost over $10 million, the militants used a computer program that cost around $25. The low cost of the program allows militants to proliferate the software and thereby increase the danger that drones can be hacked and their video feeds watched by enemy forces.

The ability of militants in Iraq to hack drone video feeds should be cause for concern, especially as far more advanced military forces such as Russia and China have extensive cyber-warfare capabilities. While Iraqi militants relied on cheap software to capture a video feed, other states’ capabilities could conceivably allow a foreign force to hijack a drone, either to alter the mission or crash the drone before the mission can be completed. Increased reliance on drone warfare will also increase the opportunities for enemy cyber-warfare units to hack or hijack the unmanned vehicles.

U.S. drone vulnerability stems from the fact that once a drone is far from its base, satellite uplinks are necessary to link the drone to the base. Such uplinks are vulnerable to hacking, unless the data stream is encrypted. But the drones’ data stream is unencrypted, and unless significant expenditures are made to add encryption to the proprietary satellite technology, the vulnerability will remain. The unencrypted data stream vulnerability carries over to other U.S. satellite traffic, as a 2005 CIA report describes. While the control data stream of drones is encrypted, the ability of enemies to access U.S. drone intelligence seriously undermines the ability of the United States to use that intelligence for mission purposes.

U.S. drone vulnerabilities have been known to the U.S. military since at least the 1999 Yugoslav war. Whether it was bureaucratic indifference or inertia, the problem was not addressed. Most worrying, U.S. commanders may have seriously underestimated the ingenuity and technical proficiency of militants. If this is so, it must be hoped that the same commanders will not continue to underestimate the threat to drone data-gathering and control posed by a lack of data stream security. Only by addressing this security hole can the ever-growing drone force be considered a fully functional weapon of war, useful in all possible conflicts and with a varied mission profile."

NSJ Analysis: Increasing Use of Unmanned Drones Raises Data Security Issues

There are further lincs at the bottom of this article.
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