The Wall Street Journal has a fascinating scoop today about how insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan are hacking into Predator feeds. Using software that costs less than $30, they are able to see what American commanders see when employing some of our most sophisticated surveillance systems. The Journal account notes:
U.S. officials say there is no evidence that militants were able to take control of the drones or otherwise interfere with their flights. Still, the intercepts could give America’s enemies battlefield advantages by removing the element of surprise from certain missions and making it easier for insurgents to determine which roads and buildings are under U.S. surveillance.
I predict that this is only the beginning of such efforts to neutralize our advantage in ISR –intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. If lowly insurgents can hack into our Predator feeds, many of which are not encrypted, imagine what more sophisticated adversaries such as China could do. It’s not too far-fetched to imagine armed Predators, known as Reapers, being reprogrammed to hit U.S. bases. This is part of a historical process that I analyzed in my book, War Made New: Technology, Warfare, and the Course of History, 1500 to Today:
It is a truism that new technology, if it proves effective, tends to disseminate quickly…. The process of technological dissemination and nullification has speeded up since the rise in the mid-nineteenth century of such major arms manufacturers as Krupp, Winchester, and Armstrong, which were happy to sell to just about anyone…. Pervasive today are firms that sell dual-use devices such as computers, night-vision goggles, and GPS trackers which can have both military and civil applications. Thanks to their success, may of America’s key Information Age advantages are rapidly passing into the hands of friends and foes alike.
The U.S. has certainly sprinted to a lead in utilizing Information Age technology for military (as well as civil) purposes. But there is no room for complacency. Every new weapons system or surveillance platform we introduce only heightens our reliance on digital networks that are in turn very vulnerable to disruption. Wars of the future will have an important cyber aspect and it will be a major challenge for the Industrial Age bureaucracy known as the Department of Defense to adjust. The latest news about the hacking of the Predator feeds shows just how urgent is our need to stay ahead of our foes on these virtual battlefields.