On December 4th, the Iranian FARS news agency announced that the electronic warfare group of the Iranian military took over the operations of a very sophisticated, un-manned RQ170 Stealth Sentinel drone along the border between Afghanistan and Iran. NATO acknowledged that operators lost control of a drone in that area one week ago but that doesn’t necessarily mean that Iran was responsible. Iran has lied about drone captures before and they may be lying this time, but there are at least four good reasons why they may have succeeded.
No one will know for sure if Iran successfully launched a cyber attack against “The Beast of Kandahar” (as the RQ170 is called) unless Iran presents proof, but its intent to do so is real; the theft of related technology is real; the lapse in cyber-security at Creech AFB was very real and the Air Force would be well-advised to take this threat seriously and re-evaluate the vulnerabilities that exist today in its UAV fleet.
- Through my company’s work in this area, I know that Un-manned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) technology is actively being targeted and acquired via acts of cyber-espionage. This includes research in the Narrowband spectrum which is how UAVs receive their commands.
- It’s not enough to know that Narrowband technology is used. An adversary would need to know the specific frequency in order to assume control of the vehicle. That obstacle may have been solved in October with the discovery of “credential-stealing” malware infecting the Ground Control Stations at Creech AFB. If the UAV operators (or pilots) entered the narrowband frequencies used to control their drones on a keyboard, and that keyboard was infected with a keylogger, that information would be captured and delivered to a command and control server and then collected by whomever was responsible for the attack.
- The RQ170 Stealth Sentinel along with the Reaper and Predator drones are all operated by pilots manning ground control stations at Creech AFB. The Air Force has not been forthcoming with details of the malware attack nor its remediation and the information that it has provided has been vague and misleading.
- Thanks to Stuxnet, Iran is spending a lot of money to ramp up its cyber warfare capabilities, and it's highly motivated to obtain some "get-back" against the U.S. since it believes that the U.S. and possibly Israel are responsible for the Stuxnet attack.