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Fred Cate
Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research

James Boyd
Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research

Last modified: Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Computer virus in U.S. drone controls could pose long-term threat, IU tech security expert warns

Oct. 11, 2011

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Reports this week that a virus has been logging keystrokes of pilots of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) from Creech Air Force Base in Nevada provide a powerful reminder of the breadth of cyber risks and of the unavoidable reality that even protected systems may not be secure, according to an Indiana University cybersecurity expert.

UAVs have become America's preferred way of waging war in deadly locales where the risk of casualties are high. The drones, as they're commonly known, are silent, effective, and difficult to see or combat, giving them much in common with computer viruses.

The key to the effective use of a drone is a secure computer link between the UAVs, such as the Predator and Reaper, and the pilots who fly them, often located thousands of miles away. Published reports indicate that the link to Creech Air Force Base has been compromised, and that while military officials are aware of it, they are having great difficulty removing the malicious software from the flight control computers.

While there has been no public disclosure of any direct harm caused by the virus, Maurer School of Law Distinguished Professor Fred H. Cate said that the military's experience provides important lessons about the challenges surrounding cybersecurity.

"First," said Cate, director of IU's Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research, "it is vital to remember that defense systems are just that -- systems -- and they are integrated with many other systems, including the Internet, email, USB and disk storage, contractor networks, and the like."

"As a result," Cate continued, "no matter how well a system is protected, it is impossible to isolate it entirely from the risks borne by other systems with which it interconnects."

"Second, we must remember that not all cyber risks pose immediate threats," Cate said. "Some of the most pernicious risks may take the form of longer-term threats, like sharing every keystroke of drone attacks."

Finally, Cate stressed that "equally important to how we defend networks is how we respond to attacks. The fact that the Air Force has been unable to eradicate the virus and has continued to operate the drones using compromised systems raises important issues."

Cate can be reached via email at: or by phone at 812-855-1161.

The Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research has been designated a National Center of Academic Excellence in both Information Assurance Education and Research by the National Security Agency and the Department of Homeland Security. CACR is part of the Pervasive Technology Institute at Indiana University.