Was U.S. spy drone hijacked by Iran using GPS spoof hack?

By Lee Kaelin on December 16, 2011, 11:30 AM

On Monday, President Barrack Obama publicly confirmed during a news conference in Washington that the "lost" RQ-170 Sentinel had malfunctioned and was in the hands of Iranian authorities. "We have asked for it back, we'll see how the Iranians respond," he said.

The conference marked the first public admission by the Obama administration that the drone had not returned from its CIA spying mission. Iran claims the Sentinel was shot down, but the U.S. disagrees saying it malfunctioned, although no effort was made to explain how it appears to be intact.

Now it appears there could be a third plausible explanation, one that claims it never crashed after all. According to the Christian Science Monitor, Iran hijacked the pilotless vehicle by exploiting a known vulnerability with its GPS systems, which enabled them to command it to land in Iranian territory.

The communications between the Sentinel and its command center are encrypted, but jamming them was also possible. When the device loses contact with its instructors, it is programmed to fly to and land at a predetermined GPS location. The Iranian authorities appear to have used the flaw to send fake GPS parameters, essentially making the drone land exactly where they wanted it to.

Even more alarmingly, a publicly readable report published in 2003 highlighted that "GPS spoofing" was possible, and provided countermeasures for reducing the risk of it occurring. Yet despite the warnings, the U.S. military appear to have done nothing to counter the serious threat it poses. No doubt the Iranians also had a good read of the paper (PDF) published in October at a security conference, elaborating in detail on the tools needed to successfully "spoof" drones and airborne vehicles to seamlessly take them over.

The last few years have seen Iran suffer multiple setbacks, which some experts have suggested are the result of a covert war carried out by the U.S. and its allies. Recent happenings include the assassinations of nuclear scientists, random explosions at industrial facilities, and last year the Stuxnet worm deployed to destroy centrifuges at nuclear plants.




User Comments: 25

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TomSEA TomSEA, TechSpot Chancellor, said:

I don't know if I really buy that "plausible explanation." A lot of things needed to happen just right for a country that can barely keep it's own antiquated air force flying plus can't keep the U.S. and Israel from screwing around with their nuclear reactors and associated software.

I'm betting this drone had an engine malfunction and as programmed, glided and landed.

Guest said:

"U.S. and Israel from screwing around with their nuclear reactors"

Would you prefer nuclear war?

TomSEA TomSEA, TechSpot Chancellor, said:

Uh no, that's not my point. The point is that Iran can't keep others from tinkering with their "ultra secret" uranium enrichment/nuclear weapon making programs, so why would anyone think they would have the capability to take over a top-of-the-line CIA drone?

Guest said:

And I'm sure Russia and China are not on the ground in Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq testing their respective countermeasures against our weapon systems.

I'm sure they would be perfectly content to let Iran take credit in exchange for access.

wcbert said:

Look on the bright side if you think back to 1960 U-2 incident when the Russia's shot down one of our U2 spy planes over Russia they had capture the pilot of the spy plane Francis Gary Powers.

All the Iranian have is a spy plane and it secrets in technology, but no pilot they can put on trial.

Maybe they will put the plane's flight computer on trial.

Honestly someone should lose their job over this, but my government that someone will get a promotion and a pay raise.

Guest said:

OBAMA: Are you sure you have it?

IRAN: Oh, yes, it's very nice-a.

OBAMA: Well, um, can we have it back?

IRAN: Of course not! You are Infidels types-a!

OBAMA: Well, what are you then?

IRAN: I'm Muslim! Why do think I have this outrageous accent, you silly!

US ARMY: What are you doing with it?

IRAN: Mind your own business!

OBAMA: If you will not show us the Drone, we shall take your country by force!

IRAN: You don't frighten us, Western pig-dogs! Go and boil your bottoms, sons of a silly person. I blow my nose at you, so-called freedom, you and all your silly freedoms. Thppppt!

Guest said:

Today, anyone with a little knowhow and maybe, Google, can find/discover hacks for anything. Just because Iran's military forces are not up to par with ours or another country does not mean they do not have hackers that could have exploited this flaw. That is just as irrelevant as saying "that person rides the bus but they have an iPhone/smartphone." Heck, nowadays it could have been a fifteen year old girl that took down that plane.

Guest said:

by now, the military technology behind the drone is already shared with other human rights champions like China and Russia. Think of all those years of highly classified research then think of all the money the US government spent to have it. Now it belongs to Iran for free.

Guest said:

i think that drone is a trojan.

Guest said:

The "Yanks" tend to underestimate their adversaries and spend far too much resources on fudge rights and other BS.

America (and the world) needs a return to core values.

This open and free cow dung nonsense is going nowhere fast.

Guest said:

This thing was not hacked by the Iran government. They started off saying they shot it down and then it was just all rumors from there. How could they of attacked this thing when you can't even see it on radar or even in the sky. They do need to look into better tech for these things not relying of GPS and certainly not allow anything else control it. Even with it in their hands there's already newer spy drones being built right now...

hrowder said:

I dunno...

Let's suppose that Russian or Chinese tech crews were in Iran for the purpose of helping them with tech related problems. Let's also suppose that the US government was aware of this.

Now let us suppose that the US decided that they needed a bit more information about Sino/Russian capabilities vis a vis US drones. They send one out with limited equipment. Presto... the drone is discovered and forced down in Iranian territory.

Now the Iranians, Russians, and Chinese have to some extent shown what they are capable of. The US, even for the moment looking a bit foolish, has learned some things about the possible capabilities of the countries involved. During any such attack on the drone, signal interception, I assure you, was being conducted both ways... that is by the techs in Iran, and by the techs monitoring the drone on the US side. It was after all, a spy plane.

So I dunno... you could call it a win for the Sino/Russian/Iranian side, or you could ponder what if anything the US had to gain from the incident. I for one, do not think any of the players are unsophisticated. I also think that the US has played this game before, is not clueless, and probably had something it wanted to accomplish besides looking at a stretch of desert.

Archean Archean, TechSpot Paladin, said:

@hr

More plausible scenario seems to the one reported, as certain US interests are in 'search and need' of another war, especially since there is a looming threat of defense budget reduction. Militarily Iranians are no match for the Americans, however, as with each passing day a humiliating exit instead of a more 'honorable' draw in Afghanistan is looking likely, they are trying to at least keep their lips tight and not offend Iranians too much, simply because they need them to counter others in that country.

fimbles fimbles said:

Quote:

"Would you prefer nuclear war?"

May be the worlds shortest war and best own goal in history if warheads use gps guidance :P

hrowder said:

To Archean: I'm not sure I understand what you are saying here. It seems that you are contending that this drone was on a spy mission as a prelude to a war we are about to start in Iran, rather than a routine mission or the possibility I put forward.

While certainly plausible, I do not think the citizenry would be willing to pay the price in blood for another such war, and would be hard to convince to as well pay for the needed equipment necessary so soon after the wars we have experienced. I'm pretty sure elected officials know this. I don't think, given the political climate in the US at this time, that that is going to happen. Treasure, blood, and political will are all in short supply at the moment for a war with Iran.

Archean Archean, TechSpot Paladin, said:

I do not think the citizenry would be willing to pay the price in blood for another such war

Problem is democracy is not what it seems to be, my feeling always has been that it is a farce, just to create an illusion for masses to make them feel as if they are in control.

Political will is not so absent IMO. However, economic realities have changed as you rightly said, there isn't much West can now do about many things in the world, simply because of the fact that economic power is shifting to east, and I think this trend will continue to its logical conclusion in the coming decades.

Xclusiveitalian Xclusiveitalian said:

We needed a reason to invade Iran, we're just setting everything in place.

Guest said:

I think u.s. gov and citizens needs lot of mirrors ! You think of yourself as protectors of human rights but we from outside of your goebbels propaganda and brainwashed tv machine see only evil imperium imposing his own will on rest of the planet and neighbourhood ! I am glad iran has will and means to opose you !

Guest said:

The military always loses an advanced piece of technology to someone so they can claim that it's now a threat to Our security, and thus, follow through with their plans to build a better, more expensive one, and also so the door is opened for them to sell them on the International market.

cliffordcooley cliffordcooley, TechSpot Paladin, said:

This would not have happened if we stayed over our own air-space. After all we don't want anyone else over our air-space. What gives us the right to even have a spy plane? That is only the precursor to war, but yet we proclaim "We are in search of peace".

To all you Non-Americans, this is one American that wishes we would just leave you alone.

gwailo247, TechSpot Chancellor, said:

wcbert said:

Maybe they will put the plane's flight computer on trial.

.

Hah...

Islamic Revolutionary Court Judge: "Do you have anything to say in your defense infidel on-board flight computer system with integrated GPS?"

Infidel On-Board Flight Computer System with Integrated GPS: ...

Islamic Revolutionary Court Judge: "Then I sentence you to DEATH for espionage!"

Infidel On-Board Flight Computer System with Integrated GPS: ...

Islamic Revolutionary Court Judge: "Defiant to the end! Arrogant bastard! Very well, 100 lashes before you are hung!"

Guest said:

The Drone must be having a pirated Windows XP installed, I think. On a slightly more serious note, with the supply chain that forms part of the network involved in manufacture of DRONES being spread across the globe, and the lowest bidder getting the contract, No one can be assured of 100% quality.

I had not seen this drone before, but it looks likes some future tech to me. Star Wars kind. Iranians say that they will Re-Engineer it. How could they possibly do so on the basis of their individual capabilities. it has to be China that would be helping them, just as Pakistan/China helped them with the nuclear bomb.

take my advice, Wipe off the Biggest enemy if you cannot amicably resolve your mutual tensions ... People who say hitler was not rational are wrong.. This has happened across the History ... Mughals, Chengez khan, White Man invading Ameica...etc... ..... You know the best who that is for you.

Guest said:

"it has to be China that would be helping them,"

Iranian scientists, after carefully and skillfully removing the plane's covering noticed some lettering underneath the belly.

"Made In China, Assembled in US"

<:O

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