Drone Future

Friday, 31 August 2012

A perimeter fence protects something extraordinary at the end of a grey, plain-looking residential street in East Lancashire, England. Hidden under tight security inside a hangar at Warton aerodrome are prototypes that represent the next generation of unmanned aircraft, known more commonly as drones. The latest technology, being developed and tested at Warton by defence contractor BAE Systems, is considered the final step toward integrating military-style drones into civilian airspace across British skies. It is revolutionary and groundbreaking. But it is also deeply controversial.

For many, the mere mention of the word drones conjures up negative connotations. They have become potent, deadly weapons in the so-called War on Terror, deployed with increasing frequency by the United States under the Barack Obama administration.

Controlled by satellite navigation and flown remotely by pilots based in the US states of Nevada and Virginia, drones have killed up to an estimated 4,000 suspected militants and 1,000 civilians in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia since 2002. Human rights groups allege that America has violated international law in how it is using drones, committing war crimes in the process. Members of the unmanned aircraft industry in Britain, however, are keen to present the aircraft in a new light – distancing them from warfare in a bid to win over the public.

“The military determine how they use them in conflict zones and it does get bad press,” says John Moreland, general secretary of the Unmanned Aerial Systems Association, a trade group based in Middlesex. “But that doesn’t necessarily mean that we condone the actions that governments use them for.

“As much as we deal with the military aspect of the vehicles that we get involved in, those are operated by the military under military rules and they’re nothing to do with civilians like ourselves that produce the equipment.”

Currently, small “mini-drones” – similar in size to radio-controlled model aircraft – can legally be flown under existing UK regulations. Most of these are under 20kg, carry small cameras, and can only be flown up to 400 ft in areas that are not densely populated.

In contrast, military-style drones are much larger, can soar at heights of more than 20,000 feet, and can only be flown in segregated military airspace for safety reasons. But technology being developed by BAE Systems in Warton is working on changing this, by integrating advanced “sense and avoid” technology so that the larger drones can be flown alongside manned aircraft in normal airspace.

“The primary reason they will be used is to collect data,” Moreland says. “You won’t see them, they will be at high altitude. They will be in controlled airspace, working within all the rules of the aviation authority, and for all intents and purposes they will appear to everybody else, to all the controllers, as just another aircraft.”

Not everyone shares Moreland’s relaxed attitude about drones. A concern for civil liberties campaigners is that police could use them to conduct secretive surveillance from an eye so high in the sky that it is invisible from the ground. Police forces across England have held meetings about introducing large drones, and the European Parliament is working on a plan to use the aircraft for border security purposes, tracking immigrants and smugglers attempting to enter countries on the continent illegally by boat. This follows the trend set in America, where drones known as “Predators” are deployed in states like Texas as part of border-security patrols.

“I think that there are civil liberties and privacy issues that simply aren’t being dealt with,” says Chris Cole, an Oxford-based campaigner who runs a popular website called Drone Wars UK. “The problem is nobody is taking these issues on board and yet we are pushing ahead with enabling unmanned aircraft to fly over our heads without addressing these questions. The big military companies are not doing this for our own good – they just see future profits in this area. So I think that there are real concerns.”

The sense and avoid technology being developed by BAE Systems is set to be tested in 2013, and experts working in the drone industry estimate that as early as 2015 they could be operational in civilian airspace alongside manned aircraft. Some are even predicting that, at some point in the not-so-distant-future, we will see unmanned aircraft flying passengers in the same way some trains today, like the Paris Metro, function without drivers.

But a more pressing concern, particularly for activists such as Cole, is Britain’s ongoing role conducting drone attacks in conflict zones. Last month it was revealed that British pilots had flown drones over Libya during the uprising against Muammar Gaddafi, contradicting previous government claims that the RAF had only flown them in Afghanistan. This has raised questions about whether the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has been candid about the full extent of its involvement in drone strikes.

“This is one of the most important ethical and legal questions of our time with regard to militarism and the armed forces – how drones are changing the nature of warfare,” Cole says. “The problem is they are not being very transparent about the use of drones. The public interest in this issue is so important, but the data about how drones are being used is not being disclosed by the MoD.”

Pressure on the government to release information about how it uses drones in warzones is likely to heighten in the months ahead. Pilots of a fleet of ten “Reaper” drones that the RAF uses to conduct attacks in Afghanistan are to be relocated to England for the first time later this year. The pilots, currently based in Nevada, will relocate to RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire, where they will pilot the drones using joystick-like controls from behind large monitor screens.

Already, anti-war activists have held demonstrations at the base to protest. 74-year-old veteran campaigner Helen John has set up a pre-emptive peace camp, vowing to stay indefinitely in “total defiance” over what she calls “murder by remote control.”

“Having lived through WWII, I witnessed the destruction of my grandmother’s house, cut in two by a V2 rocket,” John says. “I feel deeply ashamed that in the 21st century we are bringing in a new generation of murderous technology to blight the future.”

Since 2007 the MoD’s Reaper drones have fired more than 280 missiles and flown for 30,000 hours above Afghanistan, the equivalent of having flown from London to Sydney over 500 times. The government has been hesitant to release figures showing casualties inflicted by British drones. However, in December 2010 David Cameron said 124 insurgents had been killed in British drone strikes, while in April 2011 it emerged that four Afghan civilians were killed and two others injured in an attack by an RAF drone in Afghanistan’s Helmand province.

The MoD has accepted there is a wider debate to be had about issues around the deployment of drones. It is also keen to distance itself from the style of drone attacks perpetrated by the United States, which take place covertly in multiple countries outside established laws of war.

“I wouldn’t want you to confuse the way we operate drones with the way the Americans operate drones,” says Lex Oliver, an MoD spokesman. “They use them for wholly different missions.

“The UK’s rules of engagement for using a drone are exactly the same as for using a manned aircraft. They’re still operated by a pilot it’s just that they are operated by a pilot remotely as opposed to a pilot who’s sat in the aircraft.”

It is estimated that the MoD will have spent half a billion pounds sustaining its Reaper drones in Afghanistan by 2015. The government continues to fund and invest in developing more advanced unmanned technology, and has lent financial backing to an ambitious drone being developed by BAE Systems at its Warton base.

“Taranis,” named after the Celtic god of thunder, is a stealth unmanned aircraft that has been described as resembling a spaceship out of Star Wars. The aim of Taranis, according to BAE Systems, is to test whether it is possible to build a remote controlled stealth drone capable of “precisely striking targets at long range, even in another continent.” It will be the first of its kind and, if testing next year proves successful, could mark a major step towards a day when manned fighter jets are considered a remnant of the past. A dream or a nightmare, depending on where you stand.

Scandale (2).doc

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

An email claiming to reveal a political scandal will grab the attention of almost any journalist. But what if the email was just a ruse to make you download government-grade spyware designed to take total control of your computer? It could happen - as a team of award-winning Moroccan reporters recently found out.

Mamfakinch.com is a citizen media project that grew out of the Arab Spring in early 2011. The popular website is critical of Morocco’s frequently draconian government, and last month won an award from Google and the website Global Voices for its efforts “to defend and promote freedom of speech rights on the internet.” Eleven days after that recognition, however, Mamfakinch’s journalists received an email that was not exactly designed to congratulate them for their work.

The email, sent via the contact form on Mamfakinch.com, was titled “D√©nonciation” (denunciation). It contained a link to what appeared to be a Microsoft Word document labeled “scandale (2).doc” alongside a single line of text in French, which translates as: “Please do not mention my name or anything else, I don't want any problems.” Some members of the website’s team, presumably thinking they’d just been sent a major scoop, tried to open the file. After they did so, however, they suspected their computers had become infected with something nasty. Mamfakinch co-founder Hisham Almiraat told me that they had to take “drastic measures” to clean their computers, before they passed on the file to security experts to analyze.

What the experts believe they found was, they said, “very advanced”—something out of the ordinary. The scandale (2).doc file was a fake, disguising a separate, hidden file that was designed to download a Trojan that could secretly take screenshots, intercept e-mail, record Skype chats, and covertly capture data using a computer’s microphone and webcam, all while bypassing virus detection. Christened a variety of names by researchers, like “Crisis,” and “Morcut,” the spy tool would first detect which operating system the targeted computer was running, before attempting to infect it with either a Mac or Windows version.

Once installed, the Trojan tried to connect to an IP address that was traced to a U.S. hosting company, Linode, which provides “virtual private servers” that host files but help mask their origin. Linode says using its servers for such purposes violate its terms of service, and confirmed the IP address in question was no longer active. The use of Linode was a clear attempt to make the Trojan hard to track, according to Lysa Myers, a malware researcher who analyzed it.

But there were a couple of clues. The Trojan’s code repeatedly referenced the acronym “RCS” alongside occasional mentions of the Italian name “Guido.” This pointed straight to an Italian company called Hacking Team, one of the leading providers of spyware-style tools to governments and law enforcement agencies worldwide.

Hacking Team’s flagship product is called “Remote Control Systems,” a Trojan it describes as “eavesdropping software which hides itself inside the target devices.” RCS can spy on Skype chats, log keystrokes, take webcam snapshots - identical to the Trojan used to target the Moroccans. It can also be tailored to infect a computer via “opening a document file,” according to marketing materials, and “can monitor from a few and up to hundreds of thousands of targets.”

Hacking Team did not respond to repeated requests by phone and email for comment. Notably, however, during an interview last October the company’s co-founder David Vincenzetti told me that RCS had since 2004 been sold “to approximately 50 clients in 30 countries on all five continents.” (Most people today consider there to be seven continents - Africa, Antarctica, Asia, Australia/Oceania, Europe, North America, and South America - but in parts of Europe it used to be taught that there were only five: Africa, America, Asia, Australia, and Europe.) So while it’s not possible to say for sure whether Moroccan authorities are using RCS, it’s certainly being deployed by countries in that region of the world, by Vincenzetti’s own admission.

The Moroccan case is not isolated, and it’s likely we’ll hear more about such attacks in the future. Last month, a number of Bahraini activists were targeted with a Trojan tool purportedly designed by a British spy tech company, Gamma Group, which is one of Hacking Team’s main competitors. Human rights organizations have been concerned for some time about Western companies selling high-tech surveillance equipment to countries in which it may be abused. Ever mounting evidence of the equipment being used to target pro-democracy activists and journalists could have repercussions for the companies involved and is likely to strengthen the case for stricter export controls.

Thanks to Jean-Marc Manach for help with the French translation.

This article first appeared at: Slate.com