Did hackers remotely execute 'unexplained' commands on German Patriot missile battery?

Oh good, just what we need, vulnerable weapon systems being breached. Hackers purportedly gained access to a German Patriot missile battery and issued 'unexplained commands.' Yikes! Whether the story is pure FUD or a truth that embarrassed German officials into playing word games, authorities scoffed at the missile battery hijack report, calling it 'extremely unlikely.'

There’s a gigantic difference between something being hackable and that something actually being hacked – especially when talking about hackers taking over weapon systems such as Patriot anti-aircraft missile defense batteries.

Yet hackers allegedly hijacked a German Patriot anti-aircraft missile “defense system” located on the Syrian-Turkish border, according to the German publication Behoerden Spiegel. The attack was detected after the missile battery executed “unexplained” commands.

A German Federal Department of Defense spokesperson “emphatically” denied the report to Die Welt. Yet claiming “there is no evidence” and that it is “extremely unlikely” is not the same thing as straight-out denying the missile battery was hacked at all; especially since all government officials seem to excel at word games.

Hacked vs hackable

The missile battery hackers, Behoerden Spiegel suggested, might have exploited two vulnerabilities to compromise the system. One weak spot waiting to be breached, the publication suggested, is the Sensor-Shooter-Interoperability (SSI); it connects the physical missile launcher and the missile’s control system so information can be exchanged in real-time. The second potential exploit is on the computer chip responsible for guiding missiles to the target. The vulnerabilities could allegedly have allowed attackers to steal data or to take control of the missile battery.

As uncomfortable as it is to think about missiles being hijacked and rained down on an attacker’s target of choice, it is possible to remotely take control of drones and then supposedly use the hijacked drones as missiles, GPS can be spoofed to steer an $80 million yacht off course, ship tracking systems can be attacked and hijacked, airline ground computer systems can be hacked, “ghost” planes can be injected into radar, an airplane can be hacked to cause it to climb and planes can supposedly be remotely attacked and hijacked by using an Android phone. So why not missile batteries too?

A good “why not” comes from security researcher Robert Jonathan Schifreen who told RT, “These systems are not linked to public networks, they require special codes to fire the missile, which only a certain number of people have, and you generally need the code from two or three people to fire it, or to do anything that is of significance.” He added, “It may well be that the software built into the missile has been compromised in some way by some foreign government.”

Yet security researcher Billy Rios asked if an upgrade to the system could have connected it to the Internet and created a “smart weapon, where it can transmit data to and from other places.”

Former MI5 agent Annie Machon told RT that US weapons could contain backdoors. Or the tech could have been reverse-engineered since nation states conduct cyber-espionage to steal sensitive technology secrets as was doubly confirmed by Snowden leaks.

Some people might be more comfortable with the idea that the missile battery executed “unexplained” commands due to a glitch; then again, glitches can cause all manner of problems such when an app glitched out and crashed American Airline pilots’ iPads. Human error can’t be ruled out in the case of the missile battery as such errors can be deadly too; a recent example was when vital engine software was accidentally deleted, causing engine-fuel supplies to be cut off, and resulted in an Airbus A400M military transport aircraft crash.

If hackers are remotely controlling anti-aircraft missile defense systems or other weapons now, then it suddenly makes dropping $1.5 million on a missile bunker 16-stories beneath the ground and turning it into a home look like a decent idea. It’s doubtful any disaster could reach you in the “45,000-square-foot fixer upper” that has walls up to 14-feet thick and 2,000 feet of tunnels between 16 separate underground buildings. Until Hotchkiss Titan 1 ICBM Missile Base sells, you can see “America’s largest underground missile base” in tours.

Titan I missile silo 7263255

If you don’t have a million bucks, then maybe you will feel better about the potentially hackable missile batteries after learning that, in June, Germany decided to spend $4.5 billion to replace its Patriot missile system with the Medium Extended Air Defense System (Meads).

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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