Obama Embraces Killer Drones with Communications Problems

As bmaz pointed out last week (and Darkblack illustrated so brilliantly), killer drones are coming to America.

In fact, they’re coming to America in more formalized fashion, as Janet Napolitano confirmed that the US will add drones to the Texas border.

The Obama administration announced Wednesday that it will station an aerial drone in Texas as part of its stepped-up surveillance of criminal trafficking along the Mexican border.


Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) had pressed for months for a pilotless drone, and when it was slow in coming, Cornyn blocked Senate confirmation of Michael Huerta to be deputy director of the FAA.

On Wednesday, after learning that the agency had given its approval for the unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, to operate in Texas, Cornyn said he would allow a vote on Huerta.

“While the approval process should not have taken this long, I’m pleased to see the FAA moving forward,” he said. “The FAA needs to implement a system that will reflect the great importance of border security as well as the growing significance of UAVs in homeland security and national defense.”

This bodes ill not just because it probably starts us down a slippery slope that will bring drones patrolling skies near you. But also because the drones aren’t exactly fail safe, as Noah Shachtman reported last week.

For years, drone proponents have pestered the Federal Aviation Administration to let more robotic planes fly in American airspace. For years, the FAA has squirmed; they don’t want the drones wandering off-course over Cleveland, or smacking into a traditional airplane as it makes its way to O’Hare.

Incidents like this won’t help that comfort level: The first unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) flying on a Texas-Mexico border security mission lost communications with its remote cockpit, leading to undisclosed “pilot deviation,” a U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesperson tells the Brownsville Herald.

No word on whether American hackers have figured out a way to hack drones the way the Iranians did.

79 replies
  1. phred says:

    EW, did they specify how the UAV will be equipped? Are there any regulations anywhere at all that require such domestic drones to be unarmed? It is bad enough that they will be deployed with cameras, but what if some trigger happy sherriffs department decides to equip theirs with Tasers? This is gonna go downhill real fast as long as paranoid delusional xenophobes remain in charge.

    • BoxTurtle says:

      I know you asked ew, but in order:

      1) Not yet and they might not. Some of the detectors on those drones are classified TS/SCI and even the operators don’t have direct access to the feeds.

      2) No. Only regulations on drones currently are the FAA rules on radio control hobby aircraft!

      3) I doubt that military drones will be placed under local control. But I’m sure that companies are developing law enforcement drones as we speak. And I’m sure it will be legal for those drones to have any weapon that the cops currently use. Like a sniper rifle.

      Boxturtle (If it wasn’t for paranoid xenophobes, Texas wouldn’t have a republican party)

      • phred says:

        LOL, I do enjoy your parenthetical comments ; )

        Thanks for the follow-up. If the military controls the border drones, they better stay nice and close to the border or they will likely run afoul of Posse Comitatus Act.

        BTW, Neil, it was nice to see 3 representatives from FDL (EW, Jane, and DDay) on that Top 25 list. Not bad for one site, eh?

          • BoxTurtle says:

            It’s that darn Az immigration law boycott. You’re in Az, so you don’t qualify. Sorry.

            Boxturtle (We’ll make it up to you when that law gets fixed)

          • phred says:

            LOL, yeah I choked on Ezra, too. But then, I don’t have any idea who they guy making the list is, so maybe he’s a bit of a pinhead himself. Still, he had GG and EW in the 3 and 4 spots, so he can’t be all bad ; )

          • Teddy Partridge says:

            Jane’s friend-on-teevee Matt Lewis, young conservative extraordinaire, made the list. I had hurt feelings I was left off, until I remembered who made the list. I mean, anyone who puts Markos atop any list of influential progressives has a totally in-the-Village viewpoint, nowadays.

            • cbl2 says:

              and didn’t you love his heatherish little cookie cutter squibs –

              does Jane know she is leading the “anti obama narrative from the left” ???

    • Margaret says:

      IMO it’s not a huge step between deploying unarmed drones and armed ones. If they deploy the unarmed type, the ones with guns won’t be far behind. Ask the Pakistanis…the ones who aren’t dead.

      • mattt48 says:

        it’s not a huge step between deploying unarmed drones and armed ones

        Yes, it is. An unarmed drone is basically a fancy, flying security camera. The widespread prevalence of security cameras over the past ~30 years has not led to deployment of automated gun turrets.

        We need a rational immigration policy in this country, including a path to citizenship or legal residency for people already living here, enforcement of law against employers who exploit undocumented labor, and larger allowances for legal immigration. If unarmed drones help undercut the wingnut rhetoric about the “perils” of an open border, and make moderates and low-info voters feel safe enough to look at the big picture on immigration, I’m all for them.

        • phred says:

          If unarmed drones help undercut the wingnut rhetoric

          Good luck with that. A lot of anti-immigrant rhetoric is driven by racist xenophobia with absolutely zero understanding of the history of immigration in this country. Drones will not even begin to solve that problem.

        • Margaret says:

          No, it’s not. It’s not a huge step at all. The gun is contained in a package and it doesn’t take any sort of major modification to install it and the software to run it.

      • Surtt says:

        IMO it’s not a huge step between deploying unarmed drones and armed ones.

        I am wondering how big a step it is from attacking Pakistani civilians to illegal aliens.

  2. Leen says:

    Senior defense and intelligence officials said Iranian-backed insurgents intercepted the video feeds by taking advantage of an unprotected communications link in some of the remotely flown planes’ systems. Shiite fighters in Iraq used software programs such as SkyGrabber — available for as little as $25.95 on the Internet — to regularly capture drone video feeds, according to a person familiar with reports on the matter.

    And if you lived in Iran and the U.S. had supported the coup to overthrow a Democratically elected leader and then installed the Shah. Backed Iraq in the Iranian/Iraqi war, sold Saddam chemical and biological weapons…why would you trust the U.s. in any way at all?

  3. BoxTurtle says:

    I suspect the government is using better encryption for the drone downstream after the Iranians hacked that stream. But to my knowledge, the uplink to the drone has never been hacked or even successfully jammed.

    Reading on the error above, I’m guessing that the pilot flew the drone someplace he shouldn’t have. The drone must have at least two signals that agree, otherwise it goes into safe mode. Safe mode means (among other things) that the drone flies to a preset point where it knows it can receive good signals. Or return to base. Or land as best it can.

    I feel better about drones in the sky over Texas than I do about Minutemen or other patriot border defenders on the ground.

    Drones are useful. They could be more useful. Don’t condemn them because they’re currently being misused.

    Boxturtle (And anything that makes wingnuts less scared is good for the country)

    • storyofo says:

      > I feel better about drones in the sky over Texas than I do about
      > Minutemen or other patriot border defenders on the ground.

      I think both are unacceptable; one can be persuaded to stand down.

      > Drones are useful.

      I think drones are useful to those who seek power and control via spying and remote killing, and are not useful to people for much else. The people can and must do without them.

      > And anything that makes wingnuts less scared is good for the country

      Strongly disagree; in fact, the opposite is more true. What’s good for wingnuts is good for the U.S.A.? Stop wingnut appeasement now!

    • Hmmm says:

      (And anything that makes wingnuts less scared is good for the country)

      I think you must be using one of those fancy new invisible version of the snarktag…?

      • earlofhuntingdon says:

        Nothing short of the second coming will make wingnuts feel more secure. Since God’s not telling us when she’s coming back, I agree that “anything that makes wingnuts feel more secure” would be a false barometer for what’s good for the country and the Constitution.

        • Hmmm says:

          Quite. I might go so far as to venture that it’s precisely the personality trait that no thing in the real world, no matter how extreme, would ever actually produce a durable emotion of security for those people that makes them wingnuts in the first place.

    • FightTheFuture says:

      Shades of James Cameron’s Dark Angel and the police surveillance drones. Hopefully we will get a few genetically engineered super-soldier Jessica Alba’s out it, too.

    • gnomedigest says:

      The hundreds of innocent people we have murdered with our killer drones beg to differ. Oh wait no they dont. They are dead.

  4. WilliamOckham says:

    Can we start a betting pool on whether hackers get one first or some wingnut shoots one down thinking it’s a black helicopter? I give it about 50-50 odds. Of course, you can jack up your chances of winning by crafting an appropriately inflammatory message on the right message boards (works for either side of the bet).

    (Finally taking a day off from work for the first time in what seems like forever)

    • BoxTurtle says:

      I will be very impressed if a hacker gets control of a drone without having physical access to either a drone control room or a satellite prior to launch.

      Further, the drones fly well above the altitude that any civilian weapon could reach.

      However, jamming the control signal and forcing the drone into safe mode might be a different story. And that would be plenty good enough for border crossers.

      500 Quatloos on jamming getting the first one.

      Boxturtle (Jammers are simple and cheap)

      • WilliamOckham says:

        I was under the impression that the ones used for border patrol would fly at a fairly low altitude, but I could be wrong. Also, the wingnuts down here have some pretty sophisticated weaponry. In any event, they gotta take off from somewhere. You are more right than you know about the Texas Republican party and you should see the folks that think they are too liberal.

        As for the hackers, I wouldn’t bet against a little social engineering and the vast numbers of really fast machines available to throw at the problem. Humans are always the weak link in a really tight security system.

        • BoxTurtle says:

          About 15,000ft, low for a drone but they don’t have to worry about rockets and such along the border. But still well out of range of anything less than ack-ack.

          Even social engineering can’t make someone tell what they don’t know. The operators can only reveal the missions, they don’t know the crypt codes and they don’t know the keyholders or how often the keys are changed. The keykeepers have no idea what drone their key will be installed on. And so on. Odds are that no human ever knows the actual crypt keys, the keyholders are all computers.

          Boxturtle (But give a good hacker 15 minutes alone with those computers and he owns you)

      • earlofhuntingdon says:

        The Texican notion of a “civilian” weapon is similar to the proverbial Australian notion that a Bowie knife is a toothpick.

      • patrickhenrypress says:

        I sincerely doubt that limit matters much. The model rockets I launched as a kid wouldn’t reach orbit, but…

        If all one really wanted to do was observe, there already are trivial methods to do just that.

        Of course, that’s not very macho. Here’s macho.

        Heck, you could even roll your own!

        There’s one (the name escapes me) that is fitted with an HD camera, and it appears ready for rough weather.

        An enterprising person could launch a number of these to monitor the drones. That might get interesting.

    • emptywheel says:

      Glad you joined us on your day off.

      And yeah, I think the shootdown is more likely. I’m actually surprised the drones they’re using in the Gulf haven’t been shot down.

      • BoxTurtle says:

        They fly above the ceiling of any locally avaliable weapon. And I’d be shocked if there weren’t a few drones with full stealth capability.

        What is it you think will shoot one down over the mexican border? At 15Kft, there’s no legally available weapon that can touch it.

        Boxturtle (The Taliban have had no luck with 2nd gen shoulderfired rockets)

  5. wigwam says:

    For many years, drones have been flying out of the naval/marine air base in El Centro, CA. Ostensibly, those flights were only for purposes of testing and training, but look up El Centro on the map.

    • Margaret says:

      I don’t have to. I’ve been to NAF El Centro several times. I even got onto the wrong side of the border entirely by accident once. It’s really easy to do there.

    • allan says:

      Good news for Lloyd Blankfein and his fellow banksters.
      If Black’s little “no compete” scam wasn’t a crime against his shareholders, what would be?

      • skdadl says:

        Yes — I am notoriously dense about money, but even I grasped that one (and o’ course I really get obstruction because I read EW).

        Is this now back in PatFitz’s court, as it were?

    • Mary says:

      This is a particularly funny (in a not laughing way) ruling – oh noes can’t have such ambiguous honest services laws thinks of the peoples it makes criminals – in light of its “material support of terrorism – golly, how could you get more concrete and narrow than that?” predecessor last week.

      This poor country.

      • bmaz says:

        Yeah, that is a pretty telling intellectual contradiction for the “‘ole Balls and Strikes” court isn’t it?

        • Mary says:

          Yep and they set it up to let Skilling skate too.

          Seriously though – honest services but not material support? WTH. I do think the honest services (sorries in advance, but this is the lawyer in me that has had to give advice to clients before) approach was selective prosecution and harrassment waiting to happen, but still, there’s no real way for the Roberts court to reconcile itself other than to take the way the Dems and Obama have reconciled themselves – if it favors putting corporate and Executive and legislative branch actors above the law, goody; if it favors free speech and the rule of law and dissemination of truth; boohissies.

          It’s like our government, all branches, has become a high school clique – lots of little snits between each other, but a widely held and brutally-culturally-enforced belief in themselves as above the “small people.” And journos are like the kids on the high school paper, so desparate for any kind of acknowledgement at all from the kewl kids.

          • bmaz says:

            Yes, I agree, I think the honest services statute was bad. Have no problem with the Supremes bouncing it; the fact it was Skilling is a sideshow. BUT, the same logic has to, intellectually has to, apply to the material support statute.

            • earlofhuntingdon says:

              Actually, while I suspect Black is a fraud, I agree with you about the serial abuse of the “theft of honest services” statute. It was also the basis for much abuse in Alabama. I wonder if this decision will aid Don Siegelman. I also wonder why Obama’s DoJ hasn’t seriously investigated the serial abuse in Alabama. Perhaps the Department of Justice should be renamed the Department of Enforcement.

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      Gotta protect them cap’ns of industry, or at least rich thieves who dress like their oil portraits hanging in the Union Club.

  6. puppethead says:

    More militarization of police functions in this country, really bad. Not to mention who’ll be controlling these—private contractors. And last I heard, the data streams are unencrypted so anyone can monitor them.

  7. demi says:

    Ruh roh. I’m pretty close to the border right now. There are flocks of killer parakeets. If anything significant happens, I’ll report in.

  8. Cynthia says:

    In his piece entitled “Defending Against Drones: How our new favorite weapon in the war on terror could soon be turned against us” (see link below), PW Singer argues that we are at great risk of creating blowback from using aerial drones in warfare. The primary reason we are using aerial drones in the AfPak war is so that we can kill scores of Afghans and Pakistanis without putting our soldiers in harm’s way. But the ugly truth is that drone attacks have killed far more innocent civilians than Islamic terrorists. And I’m sure that the people of the AfPak region will never, ever forget this. So, as soon as survivors of our attacks get their hands on these killing machines, which is only a matter of time, believe me, they won’t think twice about not flying them over to the US and dropping bombs on our innocent civilians.

    So the geniuses in our military are smart enough to see that drones will keep our soldiers out of harm’s way, but they are too stupid not to see that they are putting our country at great risk for drone attacks in the not-so-distant future. Then again, our military geniuses, like our financial geniuses, are so wrapped up in money, power and greed that they don’t care if whatever tiny bit of good they are doing for us now will bring loads and loads of damage to us later!


  9. trbdave says:

    If the controls can be hacked, it will probably take two seconds for a pissed off 4th grader to fly it into the principals’ office.

  10. Mesa Mick says:

    Spotter drones? No big deal – If it helps ICE reduce the numbers of the Rio Grande Swim Club from sneaking into the US illegally in the dark of night fine by me.

    I’m just curious though, do you think Calderone and his band of inept and corrupt merrymen are going to file a lawsuit against ICE like they did against AZ’s 1070 law? After all, the only way the Mexican government can stop the slaughter of thousands of innocent Mexicans by their buddies the narco trafficers and human smugglers is to let them sneak into the US. Now that’s law enforcement Mexican style – Sue Americans for attempting to secure it’s own borders…

  11. Mary says:

    I think you’re being too pessimistic, EW. They are planning all kinds of softwareupgrades to the drones. Sure, they don’t have the capacity yet to go back and carve their shrapnel fragments out of pregnant women, like the their human assasination squad counterparts, but they’ve go the human models to give them some guidelines. Plus they’ve given the twitter guys a huge big contract to help them out with an “information governor” for the drones. I hear it will be based on the human Utah model /s

    • Mary says:

      Sure – the guarantee will be Obama giving a speech where he says, “by the way, predator drones don’t have accidents and crash these days”

    • BoxTurtle says:

      Their reliability is equivalent to a 737.

      Boxturtle (When not being actively messed with)

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      No, but anyone injured by it will be unable, owing to claims of state secrets and state immunity, to sue or to pressure for prosecution. At least that’s the most likely outcome given this White House, Congress and Supreme Court. Stripped of legal jargon, I think the state’s response will be that shit happens, live with it (or not).

      Maybe if the drone were manufactured or assembled in China or Mexico, and it strayed into Arizonian airspace, the locals there can enforce their state immigration statute against an undocumented alien.

    • BoxTurtle says:

      See my posts above. Very difficult to take control, probably impossible without physical access. Jamming hard enough to force into safe mode may be possible.

      Boxturtle (Drugs=money. If money can buy a countermeasure, we’ll know)

  12. Mary says:

    bmaz – I am surprised too, especially since the pith of twit seems made for you.

    Cap’n Jack – says so much in so few characters. ;)

  13. klynn says:

    And how will the drones be able to tell the thousands of the border humanitarian aid workers who are legal US citizens versus illegal aliens?

    And what will happen when our drones kill a US citizen, humanitarian, christian, border volunteer?

    I need help understanding the “outstanding human distinguishing technology” the drones are equipped with. I understand the technology is so advanced, it knows how to take out terrorists as opposed to civilians. And that in the US it will be tweaked to take out illegal aliens as opposed in innocent US citizens. /s

    • BoxTurtle says:

      And how will the drones be able to tell the thousands of the border humanitarian aid workers who are legal US citizens versus illegal aliens?

      Brown skin.

      And what will happen when our drones kill a US citizen, humanitarian, christian, border volunteer?

      You mean a subversive supporter of unfettered illegal immigration, who was in the border area after being warned off, and was only there to sabotoge the only immigration policy that works? An apology and a civil suit settled out of court.

      I need help understanding the “outstanding human distinguishing technology” the drones are equipped with.

      It’s called sterotyping profiling. They look for brown skinned, poorly dressed people traveling in groups with makeshift camping equiptment and plastic water bottles. The rest is classified, I’m afraid.

      Boxturtle (BREAKING NEWS: TX Boy Scout Troop #117 hit by cluster bomb!)

    • greenwarrior says:

      If they’re dead, they’re automatically classified as human trafficker/drug smuggler/terrorist. you choose. /s

  14. sporkovat says:

    And what will happen when our drones kill a US citizen, humanitarian, christian, border volunteer?

    well, what will happen is that the (D) captured ‘progressives’ will point and jeer and yell about Sarah Palin, and then try to scold you into voting for the Democrats who launched this stupid, paranoid, dystopian program, bringing war technology back and turning it on us.

  15. klynn says:

    BoxTurtle @ 55

    Brown skin.

    My nephew sports quite the tan with his long hours as a volunteer (lots of sun). His skin right now is brown. Too bad for him would be the gov response, correct?

    And if the volunteer is native American or African American? Does that get met with , “Ooops, oh well.”

    (Lots of snark tags here with a total underlying seriousness.)

    So, survivor families of humanitarian aid workers will be able to file law suits against the governments stating that killing their family member was not only murder but also a violation of their family member’s first amendment rights?

    • BoxTurtle says:

      My nephew sports quite the tan with his long hours as a volunteer (lots of sun). His skin right now is brown. Too bad for him would be the gov response, correct?

      I didn’t know your nephew was a subversive supporter of unfettered illegal immigration.

      Boxturtle (And if he generates bad publicity, we’ll frame him for the next anthrax mailing)

  16. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Boys and their toys. Domestic drones mean more drones and more money for outsourced hardware and “intelligence” vendors. (I’m waiting for Joe Lieberman to have his first hearing on the quality of contracting over at the Heimat Sicherheitsdienst.)

    More drones means more data, and more data storage and analysis. More money, again, for our outsourced vendors. (Joe Lieberman will hold his first hearing on minimization and other protections regarding the collection, analysis and virtual and physical security over all that data after he holds his first hearing on DHS contract processes and abuse.)

    More eyes in the sky means more opportunities to try out new gadgets. Not just sophisticated optical and digital cameras, but multi-spectrum analysis. Infra-red signatures will show what? The couple make love in their backseat on a public highway, the other couple growing pot with lamps?

    What will sonic detectors tell us (already in place on the ground in sections of Los Angeles)? Gunshot reverbs triangulated to the NE corner of Wabash and Connecticut or the ones on the range after the close of huntin’ season. (Is it ever closed in Texas?)

    More aerial platforms mean more gadgets, sensors, detectors and communications devices. Who will operate them? State or federal, state police, CIA, DoD, or a plethora of defense contractors and private security firms? What old and new state and federal laws will apply? How will they interface with old ones, like those for murder, negligent homicide, assault, peeping Tomism and visual and electronic surveillance. How will abuse of ops and stored data be protected against, monitored and punished? Enquiring minds want to know.

  17. Oval12345678akaJamesKSayre says:

    They’ll drone you when you’re all alone. They’ll drone you as you walk your dog. They’ll drone you when you take a shit. Everybody must get droned…

    A hat off to old Bob Dylan and his utterly brilliant song lyrics.

  18. onitgoes says:

    It’s a way for the fat cats to make money while cowing the populace into submission.

    I do love the photoshop, though. It’s the best! Kudos on that.

  19. alan1tx says:

    Federal authorities also have signed an agreement to allow local police from non-border communities to temporarily “deploy” to the border region to assist with security, said Janet Napolitano, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.

    So, Arizona cops aren’t allowed to assist the feds in enforcing immigration law in their own communities, but others can come in and do it?

    • bmaz says:

      Any agency who has a 287g agreement can enforce immigration law in Arizona. Agencies that abuse the living hell out of such authority, like Joe Arpaio and the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, have it trimmed back or yanked completely. And rightfully so. The premise of your comment is incorrect.

  20. earlofhuntingdon says:

    When data storage costs dropped precipitously and moved from high-speed tapes to easily searchable hard drives and digitally indexed tape, data storage mushroomed. Drones will have a similar impact over close aerial observation, once the preserve of a handful of expensive satellites or targeted high-flying manned aircraft.

    Grainy photos of Russian missiles in Cuba and SAM sites in North Vietnam have given way to detailed multi-spectrum imagery of blades of grass and EM emanations from inside buildings. And not all drones are flown by Air Force or CIA geeks in Colorado. Some literally fly themselves, via sophisticated s/w, rather more sophisticated than those hidden cameras that flash irritatingly when you go a mile over the limit or run that red light at 2 am on Constitution and 14th.

    When shit happens and you want your day in court, who will it be with and how will the other side document its case against you, including the chain of custody for drone-derived evidence?

  21. Sara says:

    The Coast Guard is well into deploying drones for several purposes, both unarmed. They are being used to monitor many waterways (Lake Superior for example) as a much cheaper and less personel heavy means of keeping track of recreational boaters. They are being tested this summer as a way of keeping track of barge strings on the Mississippi. Coast Guard also has a project to test them as a means of monitoring floods, and deploying rescue teams. Coast Guard is Homeland Security.

    ICE is also Homeland Security, and they are trying to figure how to use them on the northern border so as to more economically use uniformed personnel. On the Northern Border, at least from Lake Superior on west, it is a joint program with the Canadians. They are testing the idea of joint operations facilities, with the data being used by both ICE and Canadian Border Agents. I assume this must also involve Department of Interior, as much of the Minnesota/Ontario border is either National Park, (Voygers and Boundry Waters Canoe Area) and Provincial Park in Canada. As I understand the Canadian/American agreements, it is for unarmed Drones.

    I would suggest the thing to watch on the SW Border will be deployment of so called non-lethal weapons on drones, there apparently are quite an assortment of new ge-gaws that have come out of DARPA. Most sound like advanced versions of stun guns that mark and immobolize the target.

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