Saturday, October 8, 2011

Infected Killer Robots! Unstoppable Virus!! MILITARY DENIAL!!!!!!!!!? No, not exactly

I've already done two posts today,1 so this one will be (fairly) terse.

Very briefly, a computer virus has gotten into the network that controls Predator and Reaper drones. It's a persistent little keylogger: but may not be a serious threat.

Those are the facts, as reported by two relatively calm journalists.2

It wouldn't take much to take those facts, and produce tabloid-style headlines. I haven't run into these, by the way:


That heading is accurate, but misleading.

America's Predator and Reaper drones not "robots" in the sense of being fully autonomous; but they are 'robotic' in the colloquial sense of the word. Their pilots are human, but operate the aircraft by remote control. These aircraft sometimes carry weapons, and so - in a way - they're "killer robots."

They're also infected with a keylogger virus: the sort of malware that records commands given by the pilots.

This is not a good thing. No classified data seems to have been copied, and pilots have control of the drones. On the other hand, bad code got into military networks - again - and the next infection might be more than just a nuisance.


Anyone whose knowledge of information technology comes mostly from playing video games and watching movies like Colossus: the Forbin Project or the Terminator movies3 might get the impression that computers are dangerous superintelligences, bent on world conquest and the destruction of humanity. Those of us who actually use information technology should have a better understanding of its potential: and limitations.

Predator and Reaper drones got infected. Or, rather, the network they're part of got infected. Removing the keylogger seems to be easy. But they get infected again as soon as they're reconnected to the network.

This is not good news, but it could be worse. I think this annoying bit of malware gives the folks running America's military data networks valuable experience. Eventually they may figure out how to keep the networks secure - and that all of a network has to be secure. Not just the 'important' parts.


A none-too-serious television drama involved Area 51, with an imaginative twist. In the story, there really were alien spaceships and extraterrestrials in Area 51: and stories about alien spaceships and extraterrestrials in Area 51 were a cover story. Accounts of UFOS and all that were so wildly over-the-top, that nobody would take the idea seriously. Even if some of the 'real' facts were discovered.

That's fiction.

Sadly, there seem to be a fair number of folks who really believe that the American military is run entirely by intellectually-challenged, paranoid, control freaks: who have for decades brilliantly concealed The Truth from us, while stoutly refusing to believe that they've got any problems.

I think America's military is run by human beings, and I've been over that before.4

Out here in the real world, the 'military denial' seems to consist of
  • Not shrieking down the hall in a mad panic
  • Using existing procedures to remove infections as they appear
  • Monitoring the system
  • Studying the issue

Information Technology: Good News; Bad News

My checkered job history let me keep up with developments in information technology. I don't mind being able to store, review, search, analyze, and transmit data with a speed and accuracy you just don't get with manual typewriters. Or quill pens, for that matter.

I think today's online communities are, for the most part, a good thing. Folks can get together and learn about each other - even if they live on different continents. Yes, there's a downside: but we're talking about human beings here. 'Trouble' comes with the package.

The Predator and Reaper drone infection happened when data was transferred via external hard drives. That shouldn't have happened, but I think that sort of problem highlights one of America's remarkable strengths.

We don't lead the world in the development of drop-dead-cute robots: but we've got an information technology industry that often lets our military use off-the-shelf hardware and software. That, and an increasingly tech-savvy population, lets the American armed forces concentrate their research and development efforts on something besides basic computer design.

Wouldn't it be nice, though, if we didn't need soldiers, and if everybody would decide to be nice. And that's another topic.

Related posts:
In the news:

1 Today's previous posts:
2 Excerpts from the news:
"..."[The drones] are controlled by standard PCs," Ghosh told "None of this should be surprising." The system should be replaced or "re-imaged" with a virus-free, bit-for-bit copy of the data on the drive in order to get rid of the infection, he said.

" 'If they are connected to a larger network they will be infected again," he said.

"A senior Air Force source with knowledge of the drone program and familiar with the virus that was caught in recent weeks told that Wired's story is 'blown out of proportion' and 'vastly overwritten.'

" 'The planes were never in any jeopardy of "going stupid",' the source said, and the virus 'is not affecting operations in any way ... it showed up on a Microsoft-based Windows system. We have a closed-loop system and heavily protected cockpits -- the planes were never in jeopardy.'

"The virus was introduced when the Air Force was transferring data maps between systems using external hard drives, he said. Very quickly the Air Force protective network tracked the virus...."
(Perry Chiaramonte, (October 7, 2011)

"A computer virus has infected the cockpits of America's Predator and Reaper drones, logging pilots' every keystroke as they remotely fly missions over Afghanistan and other warzones.

"The virus, first detected nearly two weeks ago by the military's Host-Based Security System, has not prevented pilots at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada from flying their missions overseas. Nor have there been any confirmed incidents of classified information being lost or sent to an outside source. But the virus has resisted multiple efforts to remove it from Creech's computers, network security specialists say. And the infection underscores the ongoing security risks in what has become the U.S. military's most important weapons system.

" 'We keep wiping it off, and it keeps coming back,' says a source familiar with the network infection, one of three that told Danger Room about the virus. 'We think it's benign. But we just don't know.'

"Military network security specialists aren't sure whether the virus and its so-called 'keylogger' payload were introduced intentionally or by accident; it may be a common piece of malware that just happened to make its way into these sensitive networks. The specialists don't know exactly how far the virus has spread. But they're sure that the infection has hit both classified and unclassified machines at Creech. That raises the possibility, at least, that secret data may have been captured by the keylogger, and then transmitted over the public internet to someone outside the military chain of command....

"...The Air Force declined to comment directly on the virus. 'We generally do not discuss specific vulnerabilities, threats, or responses to our computer networks, since that helps people looking to exploit or attack our systems to refine their approach,' says Lt. Col. Tadd Sholtis, a spokesman for Air Combat Command, which oversees the drones and all other Air Force tactical aircraft. 'We invest a lot in protecting and monitoring our systems to counter threats and ensure security, which includes a comprehensive response to viruses, worms, and other malware we discover.'

"However, insiders say that senior officers at Creech are being briefed daily on the virus...."
(Noah Shachtmanm, Danger Room, Wired (October 8, 2011)

3 I've discussed technology, science, and the Hollywood treatment, in another blog:4 The American military has sometimes blundered. But I've noticed that they also make a point of learning from mistakes. I've posted good news and bad news about America's armed forces:


Brigid said...

Wrong form of a word: "American armed forces concentration their research"

The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

Brian H. Gill said...


'Write in haste, correct at leisure.'

Fixed, thanks!

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Note! Although I believe that these websites and blogs are useful resources for understanding the War on Terror, I do not necessarily agree with their opinions. 1 1 Given a recent misunderstanding of the phrase "useful resources," a clarification: I do not limit my reading to resources which support my views, or even to those which appear to be accurate. Reading opinions contrary to what I believed has been very useful at times: sometimes verifying my previous assumptions, sometimes encouraging me to change them.

Even resources which, in my opinion, are simply inaccurate are sometimes useful: these can give valuable insights into why some people or groups believe what they do.

In short, It is my opinion that some of the resources in this blogroll are neither accurate, nor unbiased. I do, however, believe that they are useful in understanding the War on Terror, the many versions of Islam, terrorism, and related topics.