Posted by: jonkatz | December 24, 2009

Unencrypted UAV feeds

By now, there been lots of discussion in the blogosphere ridiculing the fact that video feeds from US UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) are unencrypted. (See here, here, and here.)

Bruce Schneier has another take on the issue, arguing that the military made the right choice not to encrypt. Schneier makes two points: (1) encryption is not the problem; key management is; (2) it’s not much of a concern whether the enemy can eavesdrop on the video feed. The second point seems right to me — it is no secret what areas the UAVs are monitoring, so it doesn’t really matter whether others can see the video. As for the first point, I agree to an extent: just to illustrate the point, consider that although it may be cheap to add encryption to the UAV, doing so would require providing decryption capability to everyone in the field looking at the feed; I have no idea how expensive or difficult that would be. On the other hand, the first point also reflects some of the endemic problems the military has in dealing with crypto in general.

More reading here.



  1. So your argument against encrypting the feed is that key management is a problem, and you think that is a hard problem because that you “have no idea how expensive or difficult [providing decryption] would be”!?!

  2. The point is that the reactionary statement “encryption is simple” misses the real complexity of the problem in this context.

  3. Should the UAV’s control feed be encrypted?

  4. I hope it’s authenticated. =)

  5. Do you really think that the enemy can’t learn anything by seeing where the UAVs are and what they are looking at? I can tell you (from experience) that the enemy listens into unencrypted communications and learns a lot from it. I believe that the same is true here.

    In any case, this isn’t really the issue. The question is simply: did the military make a good, well thought-out decision by not encrypting (after carefully weighing up the pros and cons). Well, I’ll certainly never know, and neither will most of the people commenting.

  6. 1) Is it really true that the areas the UAVs are patrolling is not secret? Obviously if they are flying low enough they are visible, but I don’t know that this is always the case.

    2) Even if the areas being patrolled are more or less public knowledge, people on the ground may not know exactly what the UAVs see (angles, resolution, visibility), without “hacking” into the video feed of course.

    If a burglar knows where security cameras are located but not the directions they are pointing or what their field of vision is, he must be conservative in estimating these, and hence more careful, perhaps even avoiding stealing certain objects. If he has a direct link into the video feed, avoiding the video cameras is much easier…

  7. With regard to the comments of Bruce Schneier, UAVs are designed for stealth (i.e., they can’t be easily seen from the ground by the enemy) and they attempt to target the enemy by surprise. If the target knows it is being targeting, the element of surprise is lost.

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