Blown To Bits

How Much Did We Pay for These Drones?

Thursday, December 17th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

Incredibly, the signals between the unmanned drones being used in Iraq and Afghanistan and their base stations are transmitted in the clear — unencrypted. The insurgents have figured that out and are watching the same scenes that our military is watching. The Wall Street Journal says the system has been “hacked,.” Not really — no more, as a colleague put it to me, than someone who buys a police scanner is “hacking” the police radio system.

Encrypting signals is easy, obvious, and taken for granted. How could the system have been designed and deployed without it?

3 Responses to “How Much Did We Pay for These Drones?”

  1. Alan Fekete Says:

    See the more sophisticated discussion by Bruce Schneier at This points to the mix of bureaucratic rules and tradition, as well as technology.

  2. Harry Lewis Says:

    Thanks for that link, Alan. Schneier makes a good argument, though its details are challenged a bit in the comment thread. As one who has never experienced the command and control of a military operation, I’ll gladly defer to those who have.

  3. Chris Bush Says:

    Encryption is easy. However, you must understand that there are times when operations has a need over security. Encryption takes time and resources that would hinder the performance of drones out in the battle field. I take it that the one making the decision to have the drones communicate in the clear was taking that in to account.

    Have you ever seen a movie called the hitchhikers guide to the rest of the galaxy? If you have, then you might recall a race of people who put policy and paper work over operations. As a result, their units performed poorly. This is do to the long waits for the paper work to come in. I liken this wait to the encrypt/decrypt time secure communication requires. Now to go in the clear is a mission by mission and case by case decision.I assume not every drone mission is unencrypted. All and all, as CPU power increases, the benefits of going in the clear will decrease. Until that day, one must have a balance of security and operations.

    The views expressed in this posts are the authors and do not represent the views of the United States Navy or the United States Department of Defense.