System should be replaced or re-imaged: expert

When Roman poet Juvenal said Quis custodiet ipsos custodies, or “Who watches the watchers?” nearly two millennia ago, he was definitely not referring to the United States' drone programme.

Yet this week that question, of who might be secretly monitoring one of the most-protected advanced weapon systems of the U.S., was a burning question that the defence-scientific community grappled with.

On Friday Wired.com magazine reported that a computer virus had infected the cockpits of the U.S.' Predator and Reaper drones, logging pilots' every keystroke as they remotely flew missions over Afghanistan and other warzones.

The revelations suggested that though the virus was first detected nearly two weeks ago, pilots at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada had continued to fly overseas missions with their Unmanned Aerial Vehicles.

The Obama administration has used drones, both armed UAVs in Pakistan's border region and in Yemen and unarmed surveillance UAVs in Libya, with a high degree of success. The Predator in particular, armed with laser-guided Hellfire missiles, was said to have been behind the recent strike killing Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen.

Though there were no further explanations provided, officials sources said no incidents of classified information being lost or sent to an outside source were evident. Yet the virus appeared to be endowed with so much computing firepower that it has managed to resist all efforts to date to eject it from the U.S. military's hard drives, according to network security specialists.

“We keep wiping it off, and it keeps coming back,” said a source familiar with the network infection to Wired, one of three individuals who spoke to media about the virus. “We think it's benign. But we just don't know,” he said.

Anup Ghosh, a former scientist with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and Chief Scientist with security company Invincea was quoted as saying, “They're just computers, after all... [The drones] are controlled by standard PCs... None of this should be surprising.”

In terms of ridding the system of the virus Mr. Ghosh said, “The system should be replaced or ‘re-imaged' with a virus-free, bit-for-bit copy of the data on the drive,” adding however that if the systems stayed connected to a larger network “they will be infected again.”

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