An MQ-1 Predator stands ready to take to the skies, Jan. 30, in support of the 2009 Iraqi provincial elections

An MQ-1 Predator stands ready to take to the skies, Jan. 30, in support of the 2009 Iraqi provincial elections 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing

How To Hack a Military Drone

Recent published research has given hackers a manual for breaking into unmanned systems, according to an Israeli defense company.

Research studies on drone vulnerabilities published in recent years essentially provided hackers a how-to guide for hijacking unmanned aircraft, an Israeli defense manufacturer said Monday.

A real-life downing of a CIA stealth drone by Iranians occurred a month after one such paper was published, noted Esti Peshin, director of cyber programs for Israel Aerospace Industries, a major defense contractor. In December 2011, the Christian Science Monitor reported that Iran navigated a CIA unmanned aerial vehicle safely down to the ground by manipulating the aircraft's GPS coordinates. 

The 2011 study, co-authored by Nils Ole Tippenhauer of ETH Zurich and other ETH and University of California academics, was titled "The Requirements for Successful GPS Spoofing Attacks." The scholars detailed how to mimic GPS signals to fool GPS receivers that aid navigation.

"It’s a PDF file… essentially, a blueprint for hackers," Peshin said.

Peshin said she does not know whether the CIA drone was overtaken using GPS spoofing or even whether the attacker read the study. But she underscored how easily available the publication is online.  

"You can Google, just look up 'Tippenhauer' -- it’s the first result in Google. Look up 'UAV cyberattacks' -- it’s the third one. 'UAV GPS spoofing attacks' -- the first one," Peshin said. She was speaking at the Defensive Cyberspace Operations and Intelligence conference, an Israeli-American summit held in Washington.

In the study, the researchers explained where an attacker must be located to generate fake signals capable of fooling GPS receivers. They also described ways to replace legitimate signals with an attacker's bogus signals, so the target ends up "losing the ability to calculate its position." 

The authors of the Swiss study offered some advice on how to neutralize GPS deception, for instance, by hiding the exact positions of GPS receivers. Their intention was not to aid and abet terrorists, but rather to highlight "effective receiver-based countermeasures, which are not implemented yet in current standard GPS receivers,” the researchers said.

While the academics did not mean any harm, hackers could have quickly exploited their instructions before vendors had time to fortify satellite-guided vehicles, Peshin said. 

"The fact is that we are slower than the bad guys and the bad guys could take this article and render it into a form of an attack," she said. "One of the things that keeps me up at night is cybersecurity for operational networks, military systems, weapons systems."

The 2011 study is not the only research that Peshin loses sleep over, she said. She pointed to a 2013 NATO risk assessment of unmanned aircraft.

"At the end of the article, as if this was not enough, they listed several UAVs and said these are riskier than others by the way," Peshin said.

Among those named were the American MQ-9 Reaper and the drone purportedly attacked by Iran, the RQ-170 Sentinel. The UAV manufactured by Israel Aerospace Industries was not named, Peshin noted. 

She declined to comment on changes made to drone security after the papers were released. 

The Pentagon is currently working to insulate UAV navigation and surveillance from outside interference. Specifically, special software on a forthcoming hacker-proof Boeing Little Bird helicopter drone would shield communications from tampering.