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Nobody Knows if Iran's Drone Hack Was a Hoax

Iran's reverse-engineering of a U.S. Sentinel drone was either a complete hoax or an unprecedented intelligence coup.

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Iran's reverse-engineering of a U.S. Sentinel drone was either a complete hoax or an unprecedented intelligence coup. While U.S. officials insist Iran fabricated its Sunday announcement that it recovered data from the RQ-170 drone, aviation and computer security experts are split on whether the regime's claim passes the smell test. As evidence that the hack was successful, Iran cited the drone's flight log, which included destinations like Pakistan, in the weeks prior to the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound, California, for a maintenance checkup on Oct. 16, 2010, and Afghanistan, for patrolling missions on Nov. 18, 2010. Still, some say there's no way Iran can be telling the truth.

Here's where the doubters and believers stand:

The doubters. The most high-profile doubter is Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who told reporters that "based on my experience ... I would seriously question their ability to do what they say they have done." He didn't explain why he didn't believe the Iranians but a Pentagon project manager, speaking to Wired's David Axe, went into more detail. "The Iranians would have us believe the drone stores its missions like tweets, ready for someone to scroll through," writes Axe. "Most autonomous warplanes load their missions during pre-flight preparation, and don’t store their records in an onboard harddrive."

Additionally, the manager, who spoke anonymously, said it would be impossible for Iran to gather such data from the drone itself. “Exactly how would the aircraft ‘know’ it was ‘sent’ to California?" the manger said. "It can’t fly from Afghanistan to Lockheed Martin’s Palmdale plant without stopping for gas a few dozen times. If it did go to home in 2010, it was probably in a C-17. My hunch is that the Iranians gathered some information using other sources and claimed it was obtained by hacking the 170′s systems.” But others give the Iranians more credit.

The believers. Others have said it is plausible that Iran successfully hacked the drone depending on whether the aircraft was able to erase its data before landing. A Fox News investigation found that a faulty data steam could have thwarted the drone from erasing the data it collected before crashing--something it's programmed to do. Following that report, Tyler Rogoway at Aviation Intel said that if the drone landed with its data intact "it has the potential to render all US drones, their communications infrastructure and command protocol, incredibly vulnerable, akin to giving the enemy the keys to America's unmanned castle." Following Sunday's announcement, Rogoway said the presentation wasn't Iran's typical form of bluster. "The problem with Iran is they cry wolf a lot, and we never know what to believe, and people get desensitized to real information," he says. "But when you have a fairly serious commander that runs their aerospace division, and he goes into these specific details – not these large, overreaching triumphant [declarations] – he's talking about real things ... that's a message to the [US] government, 'Hey, we caught you.’"

There are other believers as well. In an interview with Christian Science Monitor, Jeffrey Carr, a cybersecurity expert and author of Inside Cyber Warfare said we shouldn't underestimate Iran. "It's much safer to assume that Iran is at least as capable as some of its hackers, and some of its hackers have proven to be very capable," he said. "Iran is committed to developing its cyber warfare capabilities, it has been working on it for awhile. The countries that are best at it tend to be those most under attack, and Iran certainly has been."

In the end, Iran's presentation Sunday was an effort to show the world its technical prowess. If the doubters are able to convince the public this display was a fraud, it's possible the regime will haul out more evidence if it has any.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.