US, UK didn’t crack Israeli drone encryption, officials say

Sources tell Channel 2 some of the released info was already out in the open, deny coded systems were breached

An Israeli Air Force "Ethan" drone (Yossi Zeliger/FLASH90)
An Israeli Air Force "Ethan" drone (Yossi Zeliger/FLASH90)

American and British intelligence services did not hack the encrypted systems of Israel’s unmanned aircraft, Israeli officials said Tuesday, after investigating reports that the US and UK spied on Israel’s air force operations for years.

In January it was reported that American and British spy agencies had cracked the IDF’s special encryption system for communication between drones and fighter jets. The two countries were said to have used that access to monitor IDF operations in Gaza, watch for a potential Israeli strike on Iran, and keep tabs on the drone technology that Israel exports.

The IDF encryption code was reportedly cracked as part of a major intelligence operation — code-named “Anarchist” — that has been conducted by the US’s National Security Agency (NSA) and its British counterpart, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), since 1998. Throughout the operation, many ciphers for advanced weapons systems used by Hezbollah, Egypt, Turkey, Iran and Syria were also broken.

But on Tuesday, anonymous officials told Channel 2 that teams set up to investigate the reports had determined that drone encryption had not been hacked.

“Some of the information publicized was always out in the open, and at any rate no one has cracked the secret encryptions of the Israeli military relating to drones and other weapons systems,” the anonymous sources said. The claims did not come from the Defense Ministry or the IDF, spokespeople from the groups told The Times of Israel.

It was unclear whether the officials were negating the entirety of the espionage report, or only certain aspects of the alleged intelligence breach. It also wasn’t immediately clear how the Israeli claim accounted for the alleged footage from Israeli aircraft as well as quotes from foreign intelligence reports, all of which appeared in foreign media.

Most importantly, however, it’s not clear how the defense officials could know if the transmissions had indeed been decrypted. The “Anarchist” program was not an electronic attack in which hackers broke into an Israeli system, potentially leaving a digital trail the investigators could spot. Rather, the US and UK signal intelligence officers managed to intercept transmissions between Israeli aircraft and ground control, and decrypt the broadcasts.

Based on documents and photos leaked by US intelligence whistle-blower Edward Snowden that had previously been classified, the reports said the US and Britain have for years been able to track the transmissions of Israeli aircraft, and effectively view images and videos broadcast to IDF commands during drone operations in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and near the Jewish state’s northern border.

Edward Snowden (Photo credit: Youtube screen capture)
Edward Snowden (YouTube screen capture)

The tracking was reportedly done from a Royal Air Force installation in the Troodos Mountains, near Mount Olympus, the highest point on the island of Cyprus, according to The Intercept, which, along with German newspaper Der Spiegel, first published the documents.

In the photos leaked by Snowden, shots from video recordings taken by Israeli aircraft can been seen in detail, as well as slides prepared by members of the US and British intelligence organizations explaining the significance of the findings.

“This access is indispensable for maintaining an understanding of Israeli military training and operations and thus an insight to possible future developments in the region,” a GCHQ report from 2008 read, The Intercept reported. “In times of crisis this access is critical and one of the only avenues to provide up to the minute information and support to US and Allied operations in the area.”

In 2008, according to The Intercept, the NSA’s internal newsletter, SIDToday, enthused that on January 3, after an Israeli airstrike on terror targets in Gaza, analysts had “collected video for the first time from the cockpit of an Israeli Air Force F-16 fighter jet,” which “showed a target on the ground being tracked.”

In another leaked document, intelligence analysts are requested to record and send a video of IDF operations to GCHQ. “Due to the political situation of the region, there is a requirement for Israeli UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) operations in certain areas to be intercepted and exploited so that assessments can be made on what possible actions maybe [sic] taking place,” the request, dated July 29, 2008, reads.

Twenty snapshots identified by The Intercept in the documents include several video stills taken from Israeli drones, dating between February 2009 and June 2010.

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