Today in U.S. drones: GPS spoof attack in Iran, ACLU worried at home

Drones ACLU

A U.S. drone that veered off course and landed in Iran last week is said to have been hacked using a GPS spoofing attack, the Christian Science Monitor reported today. Also today, the American Civil Liberties Union called for the U.S. government to tighten restrictions on drone usage in U.S. airways.

Since the drone showed up in excellent condition on Iranian television, people have been wondering how the U.S. could have lost control of the machine. Now it seems the drone was attacked by hackers who confused its internal GPS system, or spoofed it, making it believe it was in a different place than it actually was. It then landed itself safely in Iran, believing it was landing at its original destination. These details were uncovered when the Monitor spoke with an Iranian engineer who examined the drone.

Compromising the GPS system allowed the drone to “land on its own where we wanted it to, without having to crack the remote-control signals and communications,” the Iranian engineer told the Christian Science Monitor. This attack also hid the operation from U.S. engineers controlling the drone.

According to the engineer, the GPS system is one of the easiest to manipulate, making it a huge vulnerability. However, it appears that the United States was already aware of potential problems with GPS. Papers such as this one pointed out by The Register detail why the GPS is so susceptible to the spoofing attack, including information for both military and civilian attacks.

The attack, while mostly successful, did leave the underbelly of the drone damaged. According to the Iranian engineer’s statement to the Monitor, the landing area for the drone was similar, but obviously not identical, to its programmed landing location in Afghanistan. The landing was off by a few meters, which caused the damage. Once the drone landed, the engineers were elated, likening the experience to getting a new laptop “multiplied many-fold.”

Concerns of drone surveillance is not just an issue for those residing in the Middle East. In the U.S., the American Civil Liberties Union is calling for action from the government to tighten rules on drone usage in U.S. airspace. The concern resides in the increase of drone use cases for criminal surveillance by law enforcement agencies.

The ACLU’s report outlines different uses for drones currently being employed in the US. This includes border surveillance and permission given to the Miami police department to test drones, but only over the Everglades at elevations no higher than 400 feet.

The ACLU stated in its report, “We need a system of rules to ensure that we can enjoy the benefits of this technology without bringing us a large step closer to a “surveillance society” in which our every move is monitored, tracked, recorded, and scrutinized by the authorities.”

[via The Christian Science Monitor, The New York Times]