U.S. military drone planes have a virus and no one seems to know why or what it means

United States Air Force Senior Airman William Swain operates a sensor control station for an MQ-9 Reaper during a training mission August 8, 2007 at Creech Air Force Base in Indian Springs, Nev.

Thus far, there have been no known problems as a result of this infection. Drone flights are still flying, operations appear to be normal, and to the best of anyone's knowledge, no information has been leaked to an outside source. At least not yet. The "not yet" part is what's making everybody nervous right about now.

It's pretty unsettling that the infection got in at all and that it's recording keystrokes of people at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. As Noah Schactman writes in Wired's Danger Room blog, "The lion's share of U.S. drone missions are flown by Air Force pilots stationed at Creech, a tiny outpost in the barren Nevada desert, 20 miles north of a state prison and adjacent to a one-story casino. In a nondescript building, down a largely unmarked hallway, is a series of rooms, each with a rack of servers and a 'ground control station,' or GCS. There, a drone pilot and a sensor operator sit in their flight suits in front of a series of screens. In the pilot's hand is the joystick, guiding the drone as it soars above Afghanistan, Iraq, or some other battlefield."

Schactman told us that the virus that was found "contains a key-logger program that records your every keystroke and all the information that you enter in or take out of the computer. That's important because actually the drone operators stationed 50 miles north of Las Vegas communicate with the troops on the ground largely through instant messenger through chat windows, and if you record those chat windows, you get all kinds of valuable information: call signs, how U.S. forces operate, on and on."

Schactman says getting rid of the virus is harder than you'd think. "It's not that it can't be wiped out, but required extreme measures. You have to wipe the hard drive clean to get at virus. What it's an indication of is that the virus is embedded in really deep core system of computer."

Military officials say they're concerned but not panicking. Flights continue as planned. Still, it makes you wonder: If someone can get into the network, can they control the drones? Anup Ghosh of the security company Invincea says of the virus, "Once it gets on that network, whether through an email or through a USB drive, we don't know which, it could actually have a payload that was designed to control the drones and we don't know if that's the case because the military hasn't released that information. I'm more inclined to believe that this was an opportunistic infection that happened to get on this network. Certainly once you can control that network, once you control the computer and have code that can control the computer, yeah, you absolutely can control these drones."

Every large organization in the world is scrambling when it comes to security right now. The attackers are getting more sophisticated, everyone's trying to keep up. Ghosh says the military's no different: "The military spends a tremendous amount on security. A lot of it goes towards personnel, a lot of it goes towards operational security, which is typically guards and locked doors. But the uncomfortable reality is the cybersecurity technology they're buying is the same cybersecurity technology that you and I run. It's no better and we know the antivirus and anti-malware solutions that are out there today don't address this problem adequately."

Also on today's program, a million monkeys on a million typewriters have produced the complete works of William Shakespeare. Yep, it actually happened. One caveat: the monkeys are virtual monkeys. They can work a lot faster than real monkeys and are a lot easier to clean up after.

About the author

John Moe is the host of Marketplace Tech Report, where he provides an insightful overview of the latest tech news.


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