Did Iran Hack U.S. Drone?

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Did Iran Hack U.S. Drone?

An Iranian engineer claims Iran was able to hack the GPS of a U.S. drone to bring it down. Could it?

Can Iran hack the GPS used for U.S. drones? It’s a claim the country made in the Christian Science Monitor, with Tehran claiming to have brought down America’s RQ-170 drone through a well-known flaw in the positioning system. Such a claim, if proven accurate, would be a hugely unwelcome complication for America’s prized drone fleet.

The report, published yesterday,detailed Iran’s claim to have “cut off communications links” of the U.S. drone aircraft. The source of the new information was an Iranian engineer claiming to be working on unlocking the drones’ intelligence and military secrets.

“The GPS navigation is the weakest point,” the Iranian engineer explained. “By putting noise [jamming] on the communications, you force the bird into autopilot. This is where the bird loses its brain.”

Iran’s claim centers on the idea that it was able to “spoof,” or trick the drone into landing in a location that it thought was friendly territory. 

The Monitor report notes the technique “takes into  account precise landing altitudes, as well as latitudinal and longitudinal data.”  This, according to an Iranian official, made the drone “land on its own where we wanted it to, without having to crack the remote-control signals and communications” from the U.S. control center.

The report also suggests that Iran developed these GPS hacking tactics 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.”

There has been intense speculation over the drone, which is believed to have been downed earlier this month. As David Axe noted last week in The Diplomat, many observers have speculated that the drone that was displayed on Iranian TV was in fact a fake, although U.S. President Barack Obama also admitted that the U.S. had asked Iran for the drone back (a request that has apparently been denied).

Obama’s request drew derision in last night’s Republican presidential primary debate, with other candidates, with the notable and vocal exception of Ron Paul, suggesting that the United States needed a far tougher approach with Tehran over the drone, and also over the country’s alleged nuclear weapons aspirations.

A report from CNN yesterday suggested that the United States was using drones over Iran to gather information on the country’s nuclear program.

Earlier, U.S. and NATO officials explained the drone was assigned to tour the Afghan-Iran border and had steered off its projected course.

Speaking in Kabul on December 14, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta refused to comment specifically on the UAV’s assignment, although he also did not deny that it had been spying on Iran.

Panetta instead simply explained that drone operations perform “important intelligence operations which we will continue to pursue.”

Harry Kazianis is assistant editor of The Diplomat.