Israeli Drone Feeds Hacked by American and British Intelligence

In case you were wondering what side the United States (and Great Britain) now takes in regards to Israel and Iran, wonder no more:



AMERICAN AND BRITISH INTELLIGENCE secretly tapped into live video feeds from Israeli drones and fighter jets, monitoring military operations in Gaza, watching for a potential strike against Iran, and keeping tabs on the drone technology Israel exports around the world.

Under a classified program code-named “Anarchist,” the U.K.’s Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ, working with the National Security Agency, systematically targeted Israeli drones from a mountaintop on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. GCHQ files provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden include a series of “Anarchist snapshots” — thumbnail images from videos recorded by drone cameras. The files also show location data mapping the flight paths of the aircraft. In essence, U.S. and British agencies stole a bird’s-eye view from the drones.

Several of the snapshots, a subset collected in 2009 and 2010, appear to show drones carrying missiles. Although they are not clear enough to be conclusive, the images offer rare visual evidence to support reports that Israel flies attack drones — an open secret that the Israeli government won’t acknowledge.

“There’s a good chance that we are looking at the first images of an armed Israeli drone in the public domain,” said Chris Woods, author of Sudden Justice, a history of drone warfare. “They’ve gone to extraordinary lengths to suppress information on weaponized drones.”

The Intercept is publishing a selection of the drone snapshots in an accompanying article.

Additionally, in 2012, a GCHQ analyst reported “regular collects of Heron TP carrying weapons,” referring to a giant drone made by the state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries, known as IAI.

Anarchist operated from a Royal Air Force installation in the Troodos Mountains, near Mount Olympus, the highest point on Cyprus. The Troodos site “has long been regarded as a ‘Jewel in the Crown’ by NSA as it offers unique access to the Levant, North Africa, and Turkey,” according to an article from GCHQ’s internal wiki. Last August, The Intercept published a portion of a GCHQ document that revealed that NSA and GCHQ tracked weapons signals from Troodos, and earlier reporting on the Snowden documents indicated that the NSA targeted Israeli drones and an Israeli missile system for tracking, but the details of the operations have not been previously disclosed.

“This access is indispensable for maintaining an understanding of Israeli military training and operations and thus an insight to possible future developments in the region,” a GCHQ report from 2008 enthused. “In times of crisis this access is critical and one of the only avenues to provide up to the minute information and support to U.S. and Allied operations in the area.”

GCHQ documents state that analysts first collected encrypted video signals at Troodos in 1998, and also describe efforts against drones used by Syria and by Hezbollah in Lebanon.

A 2009 document notes that “no tip-off exists for Hezbollah UAV [Unmanned Aerial Vehicle] activity;” apparently the spies had few signals that they were sure were associated with Hezbollah’s drone program. Another report recounts that Troodos had captured video from an Iranian-made drone flying out of a Syrian air force base in March 2012, resulting in “presidential interest in further samples of the Regime launching attacks upon the general populous [sic],” presumably referring to U.S. President Barack Obama, whose administration had first called for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down the year before, a few months after his regime began a crackdown on Arab Spring protests. Indeed, also in March 2012, unnamed U.S. officials told the press that Assad had been supplied with Iranian drones.

But much of Anarchist’s focus was on Israel. The drone-watching documented in the GCHQ files covered periods of Israeli military offensives in Palestine, and also indicates that the intelligence agencies monitored drones for a potential strike against Iran.

Drone’s-Eye View

On January 3, 2008, as Israel launched airstrikes against Palestinian militants in Gaza, U.S. and British spies had a virtual seat in the cockpit.

Satellite surveillance operators at Menwith Hill, an important NSA site in England, had been tasked with looking at drones as the Israeli military stepped up attacks in Gaza in response to rockets fired by Palestinian militants, according to a 2008 year-end summary from GCHQ. In all, Menwith Hill gathered over 20 separate drone videos by intercepting signals traveling between Israeli drones and orbiting satellites. The NSA’s internal newsletter, SIDTodayenthusiastically reported the effort, noting that on January 3, analysts had also “collected video for the first time from the cockpit of an Israeli Air Force F-16 fighter jet,” which “showed a target on the ground being tracked.” Menwith Hill had worked “closely with a GCHQ site in Cyprus for tip-offs.”

In July 2008, GCHQ ordered Anarchist technicians to look for drones flying over a number of “areas of interest,” including the Golan Heights (a region of southwest Syria seized by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War), the occupied Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and Israel’s borders with Lebanon and Syria.

“Due to the political situation of the region there is a requirement for Israeli UAV operations in certain areas to be intercepted and exploited so that assessments can be made on what possible actions maybe [sic] taking place,” read the request, dated July 29, 2008. The memo asked for analysts to record and send video to GCHQ, along with ground plots showing where the drones had flown, and information about the signal.

Anarchist operators were able to snag the feeds of several different types of Israeli drones, according to an Intercept analysis of the snapshots and presentations from GCHQ summarizing Troodos achievements. The 20 snapshots identified by The Intercept in GCHQ files include several video stills clearly taken from Israeli drones, dating between February 2009 and June 2010.

According to one GCHQ presentation, technicians first collected signals from a Heron TP in February 2009. Intercepted images indicate that they also picked up video from other models and configurations of the Heron, and from the IAI Searcher drone. Another GCHQ presentation shows that by 2009, technicians had tapped into data from Hermes drones, manufactured by the Israeli company Elbit systems. In January 2010, Troodos reported that in the previous six months they had collected data from the Aerostar tactical drone and the Orbiter mini-drone, both made by the Israeli company Aeronautics.

Decoding the Drone

Drones communicate with their controllers on the ground via satellite; the transmission to the home station is known as the “downlink.” The antennas at Troodos grabbed that downlink by finding the right frequency for each drone.

Drone feeds are vulnerable to interception not just from the NSA — even cheap, commercially available equipment can be used to get the downlink. In a 2009 article in Wired, a U.S. military official likened such interception to “criminals using radio scanners to pick up police communications.”

Indeed, in 2009, U.S. forces in Iraq discovered laptops with video from Predator drones in the hands of insurgents. It couldn’t have come as a total surprise — military officials had noted the vulnerability as far back as 1999, and a 2005 CIA report stated that one of Saddam Hussein’s technicians had likely “located and downloaded … unencrypted satellite feed from U.S. military UAVs.”

In 1997, Hezbollah killed 12 Israeli commandos in an ambush in Lebanon. It emerged years later that Hezbollah had plotted the ambush after intercepting unencrypted drone video. The revelation caused a scandal, and led the Israeli military and drone industry to invest “significant efforts to encrypt the transmission of UAVs to their ground bases,” said Ronen Bergman, an investigative journalist with the paper Yedioth Ahronoth, who is currently writing a book on Israel’s intelligence service, Mossad.

“The broadcast was supposed to be completely secure,” said Bergman. “If the NSA and GCHQ were able to crack that, it would come as a big surprise, and might well lead to the launch of an inquiry.”

Israel appears to have since expanded encryption across its drone fleet, and many of the feeds grabbed by the Troodos analysts were encrypted or scrambled, showing up like the black-and-white snow on a TV screen.

Full article: Israeli Drone Feeds Hacked by American and British Intelligence (The Intercept_)

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