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US spy drone hijacked with GPS spoof hack, report says

Electronic warfare comes of age – in Iran

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The US stealth drone broadcast last week on Iranian state television was captured by spoofing its GPS coordinates, a hack that tricked the bird into landing in Iranian territory instead of where it was programmed to touch down, The Christian Science Monitor reported.

The 1700-word article cited an unnamed Iranian engineer who said he's studying the inner workings of the American bat-wing RQ-170 Sentinel that recently went missing over Iranian airspace. He said the spoofing technique made the craft “land on its own where we wanted it to, without having to crack the remote-control signals and communications” from the US control center.

CSM reporter Scott Peterson and an Iranian journalist publishing under the pen name Payam Faramarzi said the GPS weakness of aircraft has long been known to US military officials. They cited a 2003 report titled GPS Spoofing Countermeasures that appears to warn of the type of attack claimed by the Iranian engineer.

“A more pernicious attack involves feeding the GPS receiver fake GPS signals so that it believes it is located somewhere in space and time that it is not,” the report states. “This 'spoofing' attack is more elegant than jamming because it is surreptitious.”

A paper (PDF) presented at a security conference in October further elaborated on GPS spoofing attacks, laying out the ingredients necessary for a “seamless takeover” of drones and other airborne vehicles.

US officials have blamed the loss of the sophisticated drone on a malfunction, but have yet to explain how it managed to stay in relatively pristine condition after its recovery by the Iranians.

Over the past 36 months, Iran has suffered a series of setbacks that some analysts blame on a covert war carried out by the US, Israel, or other adversaries. The recent assassinations of its nuclear scientists, explosions at missile and industrial facilities, and the Stuxnet worm that sabotaged uranium enrichment plants are three examples.

“Now this engineer's account of how Iran took over one of America's most sophisticated drones suggests Tehran has found a way to hit back,” the CSM article states. ®

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