Conflict & Justice

Did Iran hack into a CIA drone, causing it to crash?


A mocked military drone is paraded during an Occupy Wall Street protest near Wall Street in New York on October 15, 2011.



Iran proudly announced to the world earlier this week that it's army had shot down a CIA-operated drone that had crossed into its airspace.

Shortly after the announcement, Iranian state television revised the statement, saying instead that it had managed to "take over controls" of the drone and bring it down — leading to a flurry of speculation that the US drone had been hacked.

The ability to hack into a drone is, obviously, a worrying one. So, is it possible?

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"While it is technically possible for someone to hack into a UAV control system, it is really unlikely in this case," said Missy Cummings, director of the Humans and Automation Laboratory at MIT. "Assuming that it crashed, it was likely due to a lost link problem on the side of the US, with some other concurrent system problem (low fuel, stalled engine, etc.) The US has lost several UAVs in this manner, so that is my guess."

Fortunately, the drone caught flying over Iran was not armed with hellfire missiles, as they so often are in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and beyond, it was a reconnaisance drone. US officials said that the wayward drone had been operating in Afghanistan when they lost control of it and it drifted over the border.

For now, the United States is in a race to stay ahead of the technology and to design drones that are protected from hackers working for foreign governments.

"As a nation we should be concerned about this," Cummings said. "But agencies in the government have been looking at these possibilities for some time, as well as countermeasures."

If America's enemies already had the ability to hack a drone, we'd be seeing a lot more of these kinds of events, she added. "If they could hack the vehicle, then the smart thing to do would be to land it intact, and not have it crash."