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Virus attacks military drones, exposes vulnerabilities

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A computer virus was discovered recording sensitive information being sent to military attack drones.

A couple weeks ago, a computer virus was discovered recording sensitive information being sent to military attack drones, an incident that will almost certainly lead to heightened concerns over the use of unmanned weapons in the war against terror.

Citing anonymous sources, Wired.com reported that the keylogging malware was detected inside the operating cockpits used to send commands to the Predator and Reaper drones at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. For military officials, the good news thus far is that the security breach hasn't disrupted current reconnaissance and enemy strike operations in the Afghanistan, Pakistan or Libya. The report also states that there hasn't been any confirmed leaks of secret information -- at least not yet.

However, the officials are certain the virus has spread to both classified and unclassified computers. The biggest concern is that classified data captured by the program may have been sent to someone outside the base. No one knows exactly how the virus infected the system, though some suspect it was transmitted through the use of removable hard drives.

The latest setback is especially troubling for the U.S. military considering the instrumental role that Unmanned Aerial vehicles (UAV) have played in turning the tide against insurgents and operatives who run terror networks overseas. Recently, the drones have garnered widespread media attention for successfully targeting some high profile terrorist such as second ranking Al-Qaeda member Atiyah Abd al-Rahman and their American-born operations chief Anwar al-Awlaki. In all, the robotic assassins have taken out more than 2,000 suspected threats, according to the Washington Post.

As computer networks have increasingly taken over as the operational interface for handling conflicts, the ability to wage and defend against of cyberwarfare will also become imperative. In 2009, a mysterious malware program named Stuxnet was reported to have damaged the machinery at Iran's uranium enrichment facilities. The origins of the super-virus are unknown, though experts suspect that it was the creation of a government agency and was developed specifically to sabotage Iran's nuclear program. And no doubt some are worried that the underlying technologies that enable the flying robots to carry out their missions can be compromised in a similar fashion.

    The U.S. military is very much aware of the threat. Researchers at the U.S. military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, have cybersecurity projects underway that they hope would address such vulnerabilities. They've recruited the insights of security experts and even infectious disease biologists to help develop a program called the Clean-slate Design of Resilient, Adaptive, Secure Hosts, or CRASH, which would not only protect computers from viruses but also enable them to recover and repair themselves the same way the human immune system fends off the flu or chicken pox.

    But as for the situation at hand, computer technicians reportedly have their hands full trying to scrub the virus from the drone systems. Despite attempts to remove the virus by following instructions posted on the Kaspersky website, the virus continues to infiltrate internal computers. The technicians later resorted to running a program called BCWipe to erase the internal hard drives, according to the report.

    “It’s getting a lot of attention,” the source told Wired.com. “But no one’s panicking. Yet.”

    (via Wired)

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    Tuan Nguyen

    Contributing Editor

    Contributing Editor Tuan C. Nguyen is a freelance science journalist based in New York City. He has written for the U.S. News and World Report, Fox News, MSNBC, ABC News, AOL, Yahoo! News and LiveScience. Formerly, he was reporter and producer for the technology section of ABCNews.com. He holds degrees from the University of California Los Angeles and the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure