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Predator Drones May Be Vulnerable in an Era of Cyber-Warfare

Two years into the Obama Presidency, it seems that Predator drones are the President’s weapon of choice for combating terrorist threats abroad. Certainly, this is not a groundbreaking revelation – there was a marked upsurge in the use of Predators almost immediately after Obama came into office in 2009. What is surprising is how little we hear about it – not only from human rights advocates that have taken issue with these weapons from the beginning, but also from officials who have not addressed the weaknesses of this technology in this burgeoning age of cyber-warfare.

Using drone strikes to target suspected Al-Qaeda members abroad was not the brain child of the Obama Administration. This tactic was implemented first under the Bush Administration as early as 2002. Since 2009, however, it became the cornerstone of the President’s counter-terrorism strategy throughout the Middle East. As a result, academics and policy makers alike urged the Obama Administration to publicly explain the legal justification for the use of these weapons. By the summer of 2010, the State Department’s Legal Adviser, Harold Koh, couched the justification of their use in terms of the United States’ inherent right to use force in self-defense, as well as under the laws of war as they relate to the conflict in Afghanistan and 9/11.

After Koh’s statement, controversy surrounding the use of these weapons subsided; and since the use of these weapons has been so successful in targeting and neutralizing enemies abroad, it seems like these weapons will remain in our arsenal and will be relied on more and more as the years go by.

Having used these weapons since 2001, the US government has strict guidelines and procedures for selecting targets and carrying out attacks. As one former CIA agent put it, “we are not in Kindergarten anymore . . . and there is well established protocol.” However, in an age of Stuxnet and GhostNet, we are left to wonder how secure these weapons are from dangerous external interference. In 2009, militants in Iraq used inexpensive and readily-available computer software to intercept live feeds from Predator drones using an unprotected communications link. This allowed them to avoid being targeted,

and it gave them insight into which kinds of areas and infrastructure were being heavily surveilled.

While this capability was ultimately relatively harmless (the US has since made the communications links more secure), the bigger issue is whether militants will one day be able to hack into the drones’ system and interfere with the US government’s mission. US officials confirmed that, in this particular case, these militants did not “take control of the drones or otherwise interfere with their flights,” nor did they attempt to do so. Two years later, there have been no more reported problems — but there has also been little in the way of reassurance that this will not happen in the future.

Despite increased awareness about cyber-warfare techniques such as Stuxnet, we have yet to hear much about existing vulnerabilities inherent in the use of Predator drones. Once thought to be a revolutionary weapon that will save American lives, Predator drones could end up being a tool used by the enemy.


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