If $26 software can give our enemies on the ground access to our drone feeds and cyber warfare can inflict indefinite havoc on our critical infrastructure, we need to rethink what technological superiority means and how we keep it.
No defense system is foolproof. That’s why we build redundancy into the system and layer our defenses with “defense in depth,” so that just because the enemy infiltrates one layer, doesn’t mean that our defenses are laid bare.
When in fact, we become aware that our systems have been compromised, it is only responsible for us to re-secure them, bolster them with additional defenses, or take those systems out of commission.
It was shocking to learn this week in multiple reports in the Wall Street Journal that our UAV drones and their surveillance systems that have been so critical in our fight against terror in Iraq and Afghanistan were compromised, and the feeds intercepted by $25.95 software sold over the Internet. These feeds were found on the laptops of the very militants we were fighting against. Reportedly, we knew about this vulnerability ever since the war in Bosnia.
It is incredible to imagine our massive multi-billion dollar defense investments and technological know-how being upended by some commercial-off-the-shelf software bought online for the price of a family dinner at McDonalds. But what makes it even worse is that we knew for nearly two decades that the enemy had compromised our systems, yet we did not fix the problem.
A number of reasons have been circulated about why the necessary encryption was not added to the drones, as follows:
- It would have resulted in an increase in cost to the development and deployment of the systems.
- There would be a detriment to our being able to quickly share surveillance information within the U.S. military and with allies.
- There was immediate battlefield need for the drones because of the immediate concern about roadside bombs and therefore there was apparently no time to address this issue.
Based on the above, one may possibly be able to understand why the Joint Chiefs “largely dismissed” the need to repair the drones’ security flaw. However, it also seems that they were overconfident. For any “Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader” contestant can tell you that if the enemy can see and hear what we see and hear, then they can take action to subvert our military and intelligence resources, and the critical element of surprise is gone—the mission is compromised.
Of course as civilians we are not privy to all the information that our leaders have. And one can say that if all you have are compromised drones, then those are what you must use. Nevertheless, officials interviewed by the Journal point to the hubris that influenced the decision in this situation – as the report states:
“The Pentagon assumed that local adversaries [in Iraq and Afghanistan] wouldn’t know how to exploit” the vulnerability. So, the result was that we kept building and deploying the same vulnerable systems, over a long period of time!
This is not the first time that we have both been overconfident in our technological superiority and underestimated competitors and opponents in foreign countries—with disastrous results. There are the human tragedies of Pearl Harbor and 9/11, to name just two. And then there are the economic challenges of global competition, such as in the automobile industry and overseas manufacturing in general.
And if some terrorist cells on the run can so clearly compromise our technical know-how, shouldn’t we be even more concerned about established nations who are well financed and determined to undermine our security? For example, just this week, a group calling itself the “Iranian Cyber Army” hacked and defaced Twitter and we were helpless to prevent it. Also noteworthy is that this same week, it was reported that our defense plans with respect to South Korea, including operational details, were hacked into and stolen by North Korea.
Unfortunately, however, we do not even seem to take threats from other nations as seriously as we should: As the Journal reported, “senior U.S. military officers working for the Joint Chiefs of Staff discussed the danger of Russia and China intercepting and doctoring video from the drone aircraft in 2004, but the Pentagon didn’t begin securing signals until this year.”
I am deeply respectful of our military and the men and women who put their lives on the line for our nation. It is because of that deep respect that I reach out with concern about our overconfidence that we are technologically superior, and about our dismissal and underestimation of the resolve of our enemies.