Perimeter
12/18/2009
06:36 PM
Robert Graham
Robert Graham
Commentary
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SkyGrabber Is For Porn, Not For Hacking Predator Drones

According to a sensationalized news story from late last week, Iraqi insurgents have intercepted live feeds from Predator drones. But the story's facts seem fishy: it claims the $26 off-the-shelf software product, SkyGrabber, was used to intercept live video feeds from U.S. Predator drones. But SkyGrabber does not have this ability.

According to a sensationalized news story from late last week, Iraqi insurgents have intercepted live feeds from Predator drones. But the story's facts seem fishy: it claims the $26 off-the-shelf software product, SkyGrabber, was used to intercept live video feeds from U.S. Predator drones. But SkyGrabber does not have this ability.SkyGrabber is a packet sniffer. Whereas a normal packet sniffer eavesdrops on an Ethernet or WiFi connection, SkyGrabber eavesdrops on satellite Internet downlinks. It uses a satellite video card (DVB-S) for your PC, one that you might otherwise use for video. SkyGrabber reconfigures the card to receive data downlinks instead (whether it's satellite video like DirecTV or BSkyB, or satellite Internet, the underlying technology is the same).

While sniffing the packets, SkyGrabber will see Internet downloads from thousands of users. It reassembles interesting downloads, such as music (MP3), pictures (JPG), and video (AVI, MPEG, MOV, etc.), back into the original files. Note that it's capturing Internet downloads, which may contain video, but not raw satellite video (in other words, video files within Internet traffic within video technology, not the raw videos you get from satellites).

This product is popular because it's free porn. Some of those thousands of simultaneous downloads will be from other satellite customers viewing porn sites.

While the program will capture video files being downloaded from the Internet, you can not watch them in real-time. Thus, it's not possible to use the program to watch a live video feed. While the above story may be generally correct, this specific fact is wrong.

The Predator (and other drone aircraft) uses different technology than satellites. You can't point your satellite tuner at a Predator drone and interpret the signal. You need products that are compatible with the Predator. Such products do exist; the Predator is made from commercial off-the-shelf products, so commercial, off-the-shelf products should be able to intercept the communication. People think there's something special about military technology, but it's almost always something normal (just wrapped in a steel box to protect it from stray bullets).

When details like this are warped to sensationalize a story, it's hard to put the facts back together again to figure out what really happened. We have to speculate. Maybe SkyGrabber is a misleading clue, also on insurgents' machines, but separate from other off-the-shelf hardware/software used to eavesdrop on Predators. Maybe they stole equipment (L3 ROVER III) that does this.

Or maybe there is a live video feed over the Internet. Predator drones send the videos back to the control center, which can redistribute them over private Internet links. Maybe they intended to distribute the videos to a contractor like Blackwater this way. I can imagine an Iraqi insurgent looking for porn accidentally finding Predator videos on a specific channel on a specific transponder of a specific satellite. In my experience, most hacking comes from accidental finds like this.

If it really was SkyGrabber that somehow grabbed the Predator videos, then there is a deeper problem. It means it had access to raw Internet packets. Those packets contain other information, as well, such as e-mail, passwords, and secret military orders. Those are things SkyGrabber ignores (it only keeps things related to porn), but other packet sniffers pay attention to. For example, my own "Hamster" sidejacking tool would be theoretically capable of getting into military e-mail this way.

If you want to try out SkyGrabber, then it probably won't work in the United States. I believe satellite Internet is probably encrypted here. However, they have a similar program called LanGrabber that works with Ethernet and WiFi. You should at least be able to run it on your own machine to sniff your own files as you surf the Internet. This should give you a good idea what SkyGrabber might find sniffing satellite Internet links.

Robert Graham is CEO of Errata Security. Special to Dark Reading

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