Category Archives: Information Security

Up close and personal with NASA’s Global Hawk drones at Edwards Air Force Base

NASA operates the giant Northrop Grumman Global Hawk drone to collect weather data.

On Feb. 5, NASA showed off its newest and smartest unmanned Global Hawk aircraft to reporters at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center located on Edwards AFB, CA.

Shorealone Films photographer Matt Hartman went there to report about the NASA’s Global Hawk fleet.


These aircraft have been helping NOAA scientists, researchers and forecasters with gathering weather information from altitudes and conditions not suitable for humans.


The missions tasked by these aircraft can last almost 24hours without refueling.

The Sensing Hazards with Operational Unmanned Technology (SHOUT) project led by the NOAA Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) Program, will deploy the NASA Global Hawks carrying a suite of meteorological sensors and deploying dropsondes during four research flights in February.


According to the NASA website, the agency acquired its three drones from the U.S. Air Force. These are among the very first UAS (unmanned Aerial Systems) built under the original Global Hawk Advanced Concept Technology Demonstrator development program sponsored by DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency).

The Global Hawk is a gigantic drone: 44 feet in length it has a wingspan of more than 116 feet, a height of 15 feet, and a gross takeoff weight of 26,750 pounds, including a 1,500-pound payload capability. It is powered by a single Rolls-Royce AE3007H turbofan engine and features a distinctive V-tail.


The engine cover, aft fuselage and wings are constructed primarily of graphite composite materials; the center fuselage is made of aluminum, whereas various fairings and radomes feature fiberglass composite construction.

NASA’s Global Hawks made the headlines last week, after a hacker under the name of @CthulhuSec and the hacking group AnonSec started posting massive data belonging to NASA on Pastebin: such leaked data included around 150 GB of drone logs as well as 631 aircraft and radar videos along with 2,143 email address of NASA employees.


Interestingly, not only did the hacking group exfiltrate data from NASA’s network, but they also claim to have achieved “semi-partial control” of one of the agency’s Global Hawk drones by replacing the original .gpx file (containing the aircraft’s pre-planned route) with one crafted to direct it along a different route; a claim that has been denied by NASA.


This is not the first time civil or military drones are hacked.

The Intercept has recently reported that GCHQ and NSA compromised video feeds from Israeli drones from a base in Cyprus.

Previously, Iran claimed to have captured a CIA’s RQ-170 Sentinel drone by hijacking it.

U.S. Air Force Predator drones were reportedly infected by a malware that captured all the operator’s keystrokes in 2011.


All images: Matt Hartman

While its aircraft can be tracked online, the U.S. Air Force only worries about Tweets….

Bad OPSEC (Operations Security) exposed by Air War on ISIS?

“Loose Tweets Destroy Fleets” is the slogan (based on the U.S. Navy’s WWII slogan “Loose Lips Sink Ships”) that the U.S. Air Force Central Command used a couple of weeks ago for an article aimed at raising airmen awareness about the risk of sharing sensitive information on social media.

Indeed, the AFCENT article speaks directly to the threat posed by Islamic State supporters who, according to Stripes, on at least two occasions have acquired and posted online personal data of military personnel, urging sympathizers, “lone wolves,” to attack Americans in the States and overseas in retaliation for the air strikes.

The article highlights the importance of proper OPSEC to keep sensitive information away from the enemy and to prevent leakage of information that could put missions, resources and members at risk,  “and be detrimental to national strategic and foreign policies.”

Interestingly, the article only focuses on the smart use of social media. Ok, however, there are other possible OPSEC violations that the U.S. Air Force (as well as many other air arms currently supporting Operation Inherent Resolve, in Iraq and Syria, or Enduring Freedom, in Afghanistan) should be concerned of.

In October 2014 we highlighted the risk of Internet-based flight tracking of aircraft flying war missions after we discovered that a U.S. plane possibly supporting ground troops in Afghanistan acting as an advanced communication relay can be regularly tracked as it circles over the Ghazni Province.

The only presence of the aircraft over a sensitive target could expose an imminent air strike, jeopardizing an entire operations.

Although such risk was already exposed during opening stages of the Libya Air War, when some of the aircraft involved in the air campaign forgot/failed to switch off their mode-S or ADS-B transponder, and were clearly trackable on FR.24 or and despite pilots all around the world know the above mentioned websites very well, transponders remain turned on during real operations making the aircraft clearly visible to anyone with a browser and an Internet connection.

Magma 13

USAF C-146A Wolfhound of the 524th Special Operations Squadron

During the last few months many readers have sent us screenshots they took on or (that only collect ADS-B broadcast by aircraft in the clear) showing military planes belonging to different air forces over Iraq or Afghanistan: mainly tankers and some special operations planes.

Hoser 15

Canadian tanker

We have informed the U.S. Air Force and other air forces that their planes could be tracked online, live, several times, but our Tweets (and those of our Tweeps who retweeted us) or emails have not had any effect as little has changed. Maybe they don’t consider their tankers’ racetrack position or the area of operations of an MC-12 ISR (Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance) aircraft a sensitive information…

A330 over Iraq

RAF A330 tanker over Iraq

Image credit: screenshots from


You can track the first helium balloons of Google Project Loon’s aerial wireless network

Helium balloons of the future network that should give Internet to everyone in the world fortunately use ADS-B.

If you point your browser to and zoom off the coast of New Zealand, you’ll see 7 slow moving aircraft: these are actually helium balloons, part of Google’s Project Loon, broadcasting their position, speed, altitude etc. via Mode-S ADS-B.

Project Loon is a research and development project whose aim is to provide Internet access to everyone, even if they live in rural and remote areas. The project features high-altitude balloons, made from sheets of polyethiylene plastic and measuring 15×12 meters,  placed in the stratosphere at an altitude of about 20 mi (32 km) with the purpose of crating an aerial wireless network with up to 3G-like speeds.

The helium balloons are all “floating” around 1,000 feet to the southeast of New Zealand, and a probably involved in a testing campaign; after the trial (kicked off in June 2013) Google hopes to launch thousands of balloons around Earth to provide global Internet access.

In the wake of Snowden scandal, someone said that the purpose of the project may not be philantropic and the task of the network of balloons would be global communications monitoring. But this is another story.

Top: screenshot

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Cyber Threats debut on the flightline at Nellis Air Force Base’s Red Flag

Maintainers counter cyber threats for first time at Nellis’s Red Flag

“Train as you fight, fight as you train” has always been Red Flag‘s motto.

U.S. Air Force’s main exercise has to prepare aircrew and support personnel to fight modern war. In the air, on the ground, over the sea and in the cyberspace.

For the first time, the recent Red Flag 14-1 at Nellis Air Force Base featured a “contested, degraded or operationally limited” environment, or CDO, for maintainers, who were trained to cope with cyber vulnerabilities in the systems they use on the flightline.

Ground personnel are always using  computers and brand new technologies that may be targeted by cyber attacks launched by tech-savvy adversaries: laptop used for aircraft maintainance and diagnosis, GPS systems, communication and network equipment are all high-value targets for enemy hacking teams. That’s why Red Flag maintainers receive academics on cyber vulnerabilities, information operations and other CDO-related threats.

Hence, along with “kinetic operations” conducted by fighter jets, attack planes and strategic bombers that must dominate a contested airspace or battlefield, a simulated “non-kinetic” war is fought by Red Flag participants to defend their critical systems from attacks coming from the cyberspace; attacks that may be as devastating as those using bullets, bombs and missiles.

Image credit: U.S. Air Force


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Pentagon’s vision of future of military drones takes “man” out of “unmanned”

According to the roadmap just published, in the next 25 years Pentagon aims at fielding military unmanned systems that will be autonomous and able to perceive, analyzw, correlate and make decisions or react without human intervention.

An obvious move that, among all the other implications, will also reduce the amount of UAS (unmanned aerial system) mishaps, the majority of those are caused by the human factor.

DoD vision up to 2038 is quite clear: drones are the key for U.S. military. And will be even more in the future, when the U.S. will have to face several problems: Pressure for reductions in federal budgets; U.S. military rebalance; Nuclear Proliferation; Violent extremism at home and across the globe; Threats in the Cyberspace (as in land, sea or air and space); Enemy Unmanned Systems.

Noteworthy, the Pentagon has added a new domain to its battlefield: cyberspace.

Acknowledging the risk of drones being hacked or hijacked, the DoD envisages higher data rate cryptography, and open standards to enhance encryption of data links and protect communicated information.

In the future, drones will be increasingly used to fulfil different tasks, including those currently not assigned to unmanned systems: “Although currently prohibited by policy, future capabilities by unmanned systems could include casualty evacuation and care, human remains evacuation, and urban rescue. The unmanned vehicles are intended to mitigate risk to the maximum extent by reducing the requirement to operate manned vehicles when the weather, terrain, availability, and enemy pose an unsuitable level of risk.”


If the long term vision foresees squadrons of robots conduct different missions in the battlefield, there will be a point in the near future when manned and unmanned systems will have to team up. It’s what the report calls MUM-T [Manned-Unmanned System Teaming].

“A force of the smaller, more agile manned-unmanned systems of the near future will enable DoD to mobilize quickly to deter and defeat aggression by projecting power despite A2/AD challenges. MUM-T will provide the following key capabilities: Defeating explosive ground surface, sub-surface (tunnel), and sea hazards from greater standoff distances; Assuring mobility to support multiple points of entry; Enabling movement and maneuver for projecting offensive operations; Establishing and sustaining the shore lines of communications required to follow forces and logistics; Protecting austere combat outposts; Providing persistent surveillance to detect and neutralize threats and hazards within single- to triple-canopy and urban terrain.”

Here comes Skynet.

Image credit: DoD


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