An Iranian engineer has said that specialists in his country captured the U.S. spy drone by exploiting what they knew was its weakest point. They hacked into its GPS system and re-configured its coordinates to make it land at a chosen location.
Digital Journal reports American officials have so far denied claims that the Iranians captured the drone through a cyber attack. They said the drone malfunctioned and its controllers lost contact with it. But recent statements by an Iranian scientist who spoke with The Christian Science Monitor in an exclusive interview, suggests that what appeared to the American controllers of the drone as malfunction really might have been a cyber attack.
Observers are pointing out that the fact that the drone was recovered by the Iranians in almost perfect condition suggests it really may have been downed by hacking into its electronic controls.
According to the Iranian who, according to The Christian Science Monitor, is part of a team working on the captured U.S. drone but who could not be named for security reasons, Iranian electronic warfare specialists using knowledge of the drone's GPS system acquired from studying previous downed drones, developed a technique of their own that allowed them to cut off communications links of the drone before reprogramming its GPS to land at a location of their choice.
According to the Iranian engineer, "The GPS navigation is the weakest point. By putting noise [jamming] on the communications, you force the bird into autopilot.This is where the bird loses its brain."
The electronic specialists then used a "spoofing" technique which took into "account precise landing altitudes as well as latitudinal and longitudinal data" and made the drone “land on its own where we wanted it to, without having to crack the remote-control signals and communications." The engineer asserted that once the "bird loses its brain" reprogramming it to land at another location is a simple process.
The Christian Science Monitor reports that these revelations come in the midst of an escalating covert war waged by the U.S., Israel and some European countries which has involved assassinations of Iran nuclear scientists, explosion of Iran's missile and industrial facilities, and a virus attack called the Stuxnet computer virus which set back Iran's nuclear program.
According to studies that have been done on GPS spoofing, the scenario described by the Iranian engineer is technically feasible. According to New Scientist, a former U.S. navy specialist said that reprogramming a GPS to fly to a different location as base is "certainly possible." Even military versions of GPS are vulnerable to electronic warfare because signals broadcast from satellites are weak near the ground making them susceptible to interference from stronger nearby signals.
Daily Mail reports that the The Christian Science Monitor highlighted a 2003 report titled "GPS spoofing Countermeasures" by the Los Alamos National Laboratory that warned of the possibility of the type of attack the Iranians claim to have successfully executed. The Los Alamos study, according to Daily Mail, warned: "A more pernicious attack involves feeding the GPS receiver fake signals so that it believes it is located somewhere in space and time that it is not."
The U.S.military has been aware of the vulnerability of the GPS system of its robot aircrafts for a long time. This is also not the first time someone is breaching the U.S. drone's security systems. Videos sent by stealth drones to their controllers at ground control station were intercepted by Iraqi insurgents during the war, and early in the year a virus infected an entire fleet of unmanned vehicles.