Hackers Could Target Automated Military Systems

Monday, August 15, 2011

Dan Dieterle

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Nation State Hackers Could Target Automated Military Systems

I enjoy computer security topics, but I also love robotics.

I have been reading a very interesting book entitled “Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution in the 21st Century“. And it has really made me think, what if hackers targeted a country’s automated defense systems?

Okay, before you think I have lost my mind, just hang with me for a minute and let me explain.

What are hackers going after now? Just read the headline news, some are targeting military, government and defense contractor sites. Well, what are our defense contractors and military working on now?

According to the book, congress has created a requirement that 1/3 of ALL military ground vehicles be automated or unmanned by 2015. That is not too far away. Also, the Air Force is busy creating unmanned stealth planes to add to it’s already numerous drone force.

Automation and autonomy seems to be the path our military is taking.

Are automated systems susceptible to malfunctions, glitches or software errors? Are there any instances recorded of these systems turning on their creator? Unfortunately, according to the book, yes.

A survey of American factories that use robots showed that 4 percent of them had “major robotic accidents”. Britain recorded 77 robot accidents in one year. And Japan’s Prime Minister Koizumi was even swung at by a malfunctioning robot during a tour of a factory.

In 1960 our Ballistic Missile Early Warning System detected a missile launch. It was not a launch at all, but the computer mistook the rising moon as a ballistic missile.

In 1979, a wargame test program was accidentally loaded into the live launch detection system. Strategic bombers were almost scrambled before the error was caught.

In the 80′s, an automated prototype air defense system being displayed to visiting dignitaries targeted a port-a-potty instead of the helicopter flying down range.

In 2007, an automated computer linked anti-aircraft gun in South Africa malfunctioned and “began to fire wildly, spraying high-explosive shells at a rate of 550 a minute, swinging around through 360 degrees like a high-pressure hose.”

Several reports of robot systems (used overseas now) doing “Crazy Ivans” – turning around, and driving at you when they loose communication, are recorded in the book.

Noah Shachtman, a tech journalist has said, “We’ve all had problems with our PCs freezing up, frying their little computer minds. That’s inconvenient. But it’s much more worrisome if it’s a laptop armed with an M-16.”

But what if enemy state backed hackers targeted these systems? Could they jam or even take over the systems?

According to the book, yes, it is a possibility. The author cites a US Army article written by Ralph Peters, where he:

…described how future wars would also include electronic “battles of conviction,” in which opposing combat systems would struggle to “convince” each other’s electronics to do things their own side doesn’t want. “Robot, drive yourself off a cliff.” Or, even worse, “Robot, recode all American soldiers and civilians as enemy combatants. Authorized to fire at will.”

Many of the robotic systems used in military applications are using off the shelf parts. One would have to ask, where are these parts manufactured? And are these systems protected against hardware, software and communication based attacks?

In the rush to remove American service members from harm, we must ensure that the automated systems that replace them are secure from subversion.

Cross-posted from Cyber Arms

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