US drones under attack?: Predators, Reapers keep flying despite virus threat

Published: October 9, 2011
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Members of the 11th Reconnaissance Squadron from Indian Springs, Nevada, perform pre-flight checks on the Predator UAV at an undisclosed location. PHOTO FILE: REUTERS

Members of the 11th Reconnaissance Squadron from Indian Springs, Nevada, perform pre-flight checks on the Predator UAV at an undisclosed location. PHOTO FILE: REUTERS

WASHINGTON: The US government’s unmanned Predator and Reaper drones are continuing to fly remote missions overseas, despite a computer virus that has infected the plane’s US-based cockpits, according to a source familiar with the infection.

Government officials are still investigating whether the virus is benign, and how it managed to infect the heavily protected computer systems at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, where US pilots remotely fly the planes on their missions over Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

“Something is going on, but it has not had any impact on the missions overseas,” said the source, who was not authorised to speak publicly.

Armed tactical unmanned planes have become an increasingly valuable tool used by the US government to track and attack individuals and small groups overseas, but the virus underscores the vulnerability of such systems to attacks on the computer networks used to fly them from great distances.

Wired magazine first reported the virus infection on its website on Friday and said it was logging pilots’ every keystroke as they remotely flew missions over Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Wired said the problem was first detected nearly two weeks ago by the US military’s Host-Based Security System, but there were no confirmed incidents of classified information being lost or sent to an outside source. The virus had resisted multiple efforts to remove it from Creech’s computers, Wired said, quoting network security specialists.

The US military and intelligence communities have used Predator and Reaper drones, built by privately held General Atomics in San Diego, to carry out attacks on top al Qaeda officials and other US targets in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen. The US military has achieved its goal of flying 60 combat air patrols overseas with the unmanned planes, according to one US defence official.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 9th, 2011.

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Reader Comments (3)

  • Oct 8, 2011 - 10:49PM

    It may be a virus but it could be a flaw in the programme. After all it was written by humans.

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  • MarkH
    Oct 9, 2011 - 11:05AM

    When people say “virus” the less informed automatically assume it’s the end of the world for whatever was touched by it. Those are the same people who panic about email viruses thinking that if they simply read the text of an unknown sender their computer could be overtaken or destroyed.

    People who use and create drones aren’t technologically oblivious by a long shot. Also taking into consideration it’s an intelligence agency they are not going to be careless about it.

    There’s also the assumption that viruses were never a concern to the creators and users and they left a wide opening for something malicious to freely trash things given the opportunity.

    Just because a virus is intended to do something doesn’t mean it can’t lose its effectiveness pending on the “environment” it’s inserted into, if not completely get crippled beyond anything other than signs of its presence as those signs are not required to succeed in causing harm to be seen.

    Viruses greatly harm two groups. The complacent and the technologically ignorant. Nobody who plays a significant part in the drone process is in either category.

    Summed up: If it’s looked at as though a virus automatically means disaster as long as it reaches its target, then the person simply isn’t to be taken for anyone worth listening to on such topics. It’s more like a strategic fight. The maker of the virus has to anticipate weaknesses and target them but, at the same time, the drone maker is also anticipating malicious possibilities and inserting contingencies for worst case scenarios.

    There also will be very little publicized information about those aspects. They’re not going to advertise flaws or any preventative measures. There’s nothing but downsides to doing that. Not only in technology, but with any information in regard to an enemy, you want them to be uninformed even about the smallest things. Not because of a threat but because of the psychological effect of unknown elements. If you’re in a conflict with someone and they know absolutely nothing about you, it makes them uncomfortable no matter the image they’re trying to project. Them even just asking your name and receiving no reply makes the situation a lot different than if you do tell them.

    If they’re still flying it means the drone makers either won that fight or shrugged off the majority of its intended impact.

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  • Abu hamza
    Oct 10, 2011 - 6:51PM

    Oh man I nearly feared this valuable tool to kill and maime thousands of people would be destroyed by a computer virus.Recommend

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