US armed drones found infected with computer virus

Stories in Wired and Geeko Systems are relating how computer malware has been found on the systems that control the Pentagon's Reaper and Predator drone fleet. A keylogger exploit was found on the computers used to remotely control drones at Nevada's Creech Air Force Base. A keylogger is designed to log operator key strokes, including passwords and other critical security information and send it back to the owner of the keylogger exploit. Creech AFB flies drones on lethal mission over Pakistan, Afghanistan and who knows where else. The source of the infection is unknown, as is the identity and intentions of the attacker, but in as much as Creech is one of the few DoD facilities to regularly use USB thumb drives to transfer mission data between consoles, it appears likely that was the medium of transmission. Once the consoles got infected, they have been unable to completely eradicated it.

The story about the keystroke virus hitting the drone computers was first reported here back in October when it was discovered, so I am not reporting breaking news for a change, but in view of the new information, I thought another diary on this subject was in order.

"Who's Flying Our Drones?"

Obviously, the implications of this are huge. A hacker takeover or even a simple computer crash of an armed, or even unarmed drone is something that potentially could cost many lives.

Apparently, the Pentagon based the computers that control the drones on the highly insecure, and problematic MS Windows operating system. At least one branch of the US military has decided to resolve these problems by ditching Windows entirely and moving their drone fleet over to the Linux operating system. According to Geeko Systems, June 11, 2012:

A new contract announced last Wednesday should give all Linux users a warm feeling, as the Navy has decided to make the open source OS the foundation for its drone fleet. All it will cost is about $34 million for the entire fleet of MQ-8B Firescouts. No word if they’ll be getting Tux decals too.

The contract between the Navy and Raytheon Intelligence and Information Systems was reported this past Wednesday. According to Defense Professionals, the no-compete contract is “to complete Linux transition on the tactical control system software for vertical takeoff unmanned air vehicle ground control stations.” The cost is $27,883,883, in addition to $5,175,075 of funding set to expire at the end of the year.

Linux was created by thousands of software developers from every part of the globe working together to build a free software operating system that is free of the commercial and technological constrains of software developed by Microsoft and other corporations. As we say in the Linux community, it is free as in beer and free as in speech. It was also designed from the ground up to be very secure, meaning that it is also free of the many viruses and malware that infect so many Windows machines.

Linux is open source software. This means that by the terms of its General Public License [GPL - also known as "copyleft" ], the source code, or "recipe" for the software must always be publicly available. This includes any adaptation or modifications of the software. I find it hard to believe that the Pentagon will be compiling with those terms of the GPL. Anybody interested in pursuing a FOIA request for drone software source code?

Feeling on this question run deep with me. In 1996, while Linux was still in its infancy, I founded Linux Users, Los Angeles [LULA], the first Linux user group in Los Angeles. I was president of LULA for eight years. When I resigned in 2004 to focus my attention on opposition to the Iraq War and at the same time spoke out against the military's growing use of Linux, it raised a storm of controversy in the Linux community. For example the article, April 20, 2004 "Lug president resigns over military Linux use" generated an astounding 1361 comments.

My favorite Linux distribution these days is Ubuntu Linux. In describing why they choose that name they say Ubuntu means 'I am what I am because of who we all are'. The Ubuntu operating system brings the spirit of Ubuntu to the world of computers.

Ubuntu is an ancient African word meaning 'humanity to others'. I don't think the same can be said about the US military drone program.

With my daughter, Candice, representing Linux at 1997 Comdex show in Los Wages, NV.

Representing the anti-war sentiments at Linux World in San Fransisco, 2003