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CIA Drones May Have Used Illegal, Inaccurate Code 279

Posted by Soulskill
from the fighting-terror-with-ctrl-c-and-ctrl-v dept.
skids writes "Coders hate having to rush code out the door before it's ready. They also hate it when the customer starts making unreasonable demands. What they hate even more is when the customer reverse engineers the product and starts selling their own inferior product. But what really ticks them off is when that buggy, knockoff product might be used by targeting systems in military unmanned drone attacks, and the bugs introduce location errors of up to 13 meters. That's what purportedly happened to software developer IISi, based on an ongoing boardroom/courtroom drama that will leave any hard-pressed coder appreciating just how much worse his job could get. The saddest part? The CIA assumed the bug was a feature. The tinfoil-hat-inducing part? The alleged perpetrators just got bought by IBM."
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CIA Drones May Have Used Illegal, Inaccurate Code

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  • by ifiwereasculptor (1870574) on Friday September 24, 2010 @03:33PM (#33691032)
    "The CIA assumed the bug was a feature." Are CIA agents being issued iPhones, by any chance?
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday September 24, 2010 @03:34PM (#33691042)

    The CIA is involved in the collection and analysis of foreign data.

    Building an attack drone is, let's say, missing the mark.

    • Haven't read up much about the CIA have you?
    • by Spazntwich (208070) on Friday September 24, 2010 @03:53PM (#33691250)

      Maybe they need to analyze the effect of high-speed projectiles on foreigners.

    • by amicusNYCL (1538833) on Friday September 24, 2010 @04:24PM (#33691582)

      The CIA is involved in the collection and analysis of foreign data.

      Building an attack drone is, let's say, missing the mark.

      You don't understand. Sometimes the foreign data they need to collect and analyze (mostly just analyze) is in a hardened bunker, or warehouse, or mud compound. They can't just land the drone and drive it into the mud compound very well, can they? The easiest way to expose the data they need to analyze is to remove the roof of the building. This allows the drone to take pictures of whatever used to be in the building, without landing, so that they can analyze it.

    • by Wiarumas (919682)
      Quick, somebody make this guy a tin foil hat. The brain control waves must have gotten to him...
  • Wow. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by rcb1974 (654474) <richardballantyne@NoSpAm.gmail.com> on Friday September 24, 2010 @03:37PM (#33691068) Homepage

    Out of all the hardware that is controlled by software, I would have thought drone software would be the most scrutinized. Unbelievable. Even more reason why we should not arm robots (even remote human operated ones) with weapons such as Hellfire missiles.

    • Re:Wow. (Score:5, Funny)

      by Firemouth (1360899) on Friday September 24, 2010 @03:42PM (#33691122)

      Out of all the hardware that is controlled by software, I would have thought drone software would be the most scrutinized. Unbelievable. Even more reason why we should not arm robots (even remote human operated ones) with weapons such as Hellfire missiles.

      On the contrary, this is the reason why we should arm robots with BIGGER weapons! One's that it won't make a difference if you're off by 13 meters...

      • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

        by grub (11606)

        One's that it won't make a difference if you're off by 13 meters...

        Nuke the site from orbit, it's the only way to be sure.
      • Re:Wow. (Score:5, Funny)

        by srussia (884021) on Friday September 24, 2010 @04:09PM (#33691414)

        Out of all the hardware that is controlled by software, I would have thought drone software would be the most scrutinized. Unbelievable. Even more reason why we should not arm robots (even remote human operated ones) with weapons such as Hellfire missiles.

        On the contrary, this is the reason why we should arm robots with BIGGER weapons! One's that it won't make a difference if you're off by 13 meters...

        Leave the weapon out altogether, just include a divide-by-zero error in the code!

    • by Abstrackt (609015)

      Even more reason why we should not arm robots (even remote human operated ones) with weapons such as Hellfire missiles.

      On the other hand, arming the drones with nukes would guarantee they hit their target despite their lack of accuracy.

      • Re:Wow. (Score:5, Funny)

        by Ukab the Great (87152) on Friday September 24, 2010 @03:50PM (#33691212)

        The bad news: If you use nukes, then coders will get even more lazy and feel they don't have to use asserts and end up being so off that the drones nuke New Jersey instead of Afghanistan.

        The good news: Such as catastrophe just be enough to take Jersey Shore off the air.

        • The good news: Such as catastrophe just be enough to take Jersey Shore off the air.

          But then all the guidos and guido-wannabes will off themselves. Hmm... Okay. Proceed.

        • by Sulphur (1548251)

          The good news: Such as catastrophe just be enough to take Jersey Shore off the air.

          Rumor has it that Jersey Shore is offensive to Afghans.

        • by e4g4 (533831)

          The good news: Such as catastrophe just be enough to take Jersey Shore off the air.

          No, they'll just change the title to Pennsylvania Shore.

      • by gmuslera (3436)
        With big enough nukes they will get the target no matter how far they hit, along with everything else.
    • Re:Wow. (Score:5, Informative)

      by Sonny Yatsen (603655) * on Friday September 24, 2010 @03:48PM (#33691174) Journal

      It's amazing that drone hardware is fairly well designed, but its software design and implementation is so slapdash. Just last year, it was revealed that the Drones broadcasted its video feed in unencrypted form and was being used by militants to spy on us.

      http://www.networkworld.com/news/2009/121709-drone-intercept-encryption.html [networkworld.com]

    • by blair1q (305137)

      The rules for scrutinizing code for aircraft are based on the danger involved in not scrutinizing it enough. And the military doesn't have the same edict to follow them as commercial aviation does.

      Since drones are unmanned, their code would get less scrutiny than manned aircraft, if it gets any scrutiny at all.

      Normally, it will be scrutinized, inspected, tested, qualified, etc. But if anything goes wrong, the military can waive the requirement and take what it gets in order to meet a deadline.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by LWATCDR (28044)

      I wonder if there is any real problem.
      And before anyone gets all bent hear me out and I mean from a tactical point of view.
      Does it matter if the the drone ends up 13 meters away from a check point?
      When using a Hellfire the operator will manually point the camera/laser at the target and fire the missile.
      It really doesn't matter because there is a man in the using a laser designator.

      If the Drone is dropping JDams then there may be a problem.
      I believe there are two modes. One where the drone/pane uses it's vid

      • by copponex (13876) on Friday September 24, 2010 @05:37PM (#33692546) Homepage

        Oh and as to not arming robots? Too late really. We have been doing it for ever 100 years now.
        The Torpedo is a Robot. The first ones where really steampunk killing robots. Suicidal ones to be sure but still robots.

        This is not the root issue of using a robot. The root issue is that technologically advanced societies have been pushing the button from further and further away. The further away they are, the less incentive they have to make sure that their target is valid.

        First, you've got hand to hand combat. You're not going to engage unless you absolutely have to, and can deal with listening to someone gurgle and plead while they bleed out. Then you can move on to ranged weapons. In the early days, you had to get pretty close to hit someone with a musket, but you still at least had to watch people die. Then we got cannon. Rifles. Machine guns. Artillery. Airplanes. Satellite guided bombs. With each advance in military technology, you are taking less risk to your own life when you take the lives of others. That's why there are 6,000 dead "coalition" troops and several hundred thousand dead Afghans and Iraqis. It's not a war, it's a shooting gallery with political implications. If it were a war, like it was with the Japanese and the Nazis, there would be a front somewhere. The chances of Iraqis or Afghans crossing continents and oceans are not virtually zero, they are exactly zero.

        Now we're at the point where some militaries have the majority of their apparatus safely tucked away in a megabase or in the air or even back in their home country. Ninety nine percent of the military are good guys who sign up thinking they will be fighting for their country. For the military to work, when the guy with the most penises on their shoulder says "Kill" the command must be passed down until a trigger is pulled somewhere. But for that guy at the very end, it's still a human decision that can be overridden by natural desires to protect human life. He can make up something about the target being obscured. He can stop it if he really thinks it's not achieving an objective. He knows intuitively that he will pay a high price for taking this life, because he has to take that memory home with him.

        When the top brass are over your shoulder, you'd better click the button and blow up the house.

        And soon the top brass won't even need to issue a command. They will order the command, and the quasi-sentient robots (not some half assed definition that fits your argument) will kill, and the grunts will simply arrive to ID the body parts.

        The real problem with this technology is that there is no pushback for human life. If a politician wants it, and he can find someone in the military who will perform it, you can bet your ass that millions of innocent people will die as a result. The more humans you remove from the end of the equation, the less humane the result will be.

        • by gknoy (899301) <gknoy@nOsPaM.anasazisystems.com> on Friday September 24, 2010 @06:38PM (#33693140)

          But for that guy at the very end, it's still a human decision that can be overridden by natural desires to protect human life. He can make up something about the target being obscured. He can stop it if he really thinks it's not achieving an objective. He knows intuitively that he will pay a high price for taking this life, because he has to take that memory home with him.

          I read an interesting article in a mainstream magazine about Air Force drone pilots. Basically, they sit in Nevada and control drones in Afghanistan. I was expecting to read about how jaded and eager they were to press buttons at the drop of the hat, but what I found was the opposite.

          The drones are capable of staying in the air for days at a time, monitoring a target (person). They have cameras running, and multiple shifts of human crews watching the video feeds and analyzing what's going on. In the process, they are able to ascertain with frightening accuracy that yes, this particular man is a terrorist: Here's the video feed of him buying some weapons, and here's the part X hours later where we just watched him create a roadside IED. Being able to keep someone under direct video surveillance (including thermal, if I recall correctly, so being indoors didn't help a lot) meant that for at least some targets, they were very sure that that person was a bad guy.

          We have people halfway around the globe pushing buttons to kill people about whom we have reams of (video) evidence showing hostile behavior. I think that's better informed killing than having combat teams need to go in and do the same killing on foot, with potentially faulty intelligence, and without (at times) being able to mount multi-day uninterrupted surveillance.

    • by drolli (522659)

      No, the most scrutinized things with software are probably cars. Thats good in that way because they are used for driving hundreds of millions of kilometers each day. An deadly error occurring once every 1000000 kilometers for a single device will kill 100s of people per day.

    • Even when such software is scrutinized, it doesn't always work properly [atsb.gov.au].
    • Re:Wow. (Score:5, Informative)

      by xianthax (963773) on Friday September 24, 2010 @05:37PM (#33692550)

      i don't think you understood the article or didn't read it.

      The software wasn't the guidance system for the drone, control it in anyway, or even run on the drone itself. Its running in some data center some where tracking where people are when they use a cell phone or an ATM, etc.

      Its just a mapping package for laying out data thats correlated to geography, its just "google earth - government edition".

      I doubt the 13m really mattered, your not getting 13m accuracy anyway when tracking a cell phone via tower transitions.

      The CIA was using it to find potential targets so they could send a drone toward them, they'd have to get more specific information as to the exact target location elsewhere.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by BigFootApe (264256)

        I'm guessing this is adaptable to alternative sensor platforms, not just cell towers. If they want that kind of accuracy from the SIGINT/DF hardware, they can probably get it. The problem is that they might not have a handle on the systematic errors being introduced into their targeting.

        For example, say they slave the on station Predator optics to data from this software so they can pick up a guy in a town and follow him to wherever he's going. Everything is peachy, because they know there was nobody within

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by X0563511 (793323)

        True, but the error is additive, and any other errors in the pipeline stack up.

        Pretend for a minute that the munition has a 6 meter kill zone. Say you have a tracking tech that's accurate to 10 meters. Likely anyone in that +/- 10m area is going to be very sorry even if they don't get dead right away.

        Now, introduce another 10 meter inaccuracy. This means that you can be anywhere from bullseye to 20 meters away. The odds have suddenly gone from "most likely dead" to "more likely unharmed" - not a desired res

  • by OzPeter (195038) on Friday September 24, 2010 @03:44PM (#33691142)

    And sub contractor steadfastly saying that they can't deliver production ready software in the given time fame.

    Where have I heard that before? .. ah yes .. the current death march project that I am in the middle of!

    • funny that. I'm in the same place, having just been responsible for debugging the project and in spite of everyone else's bungles, making sure it's going to be delivered to the customers only a month late.
  • If the bug is actually limited to reducing accuracy by 13, that's not a huge deal given the kill zone of hellfire missiles.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Tsunayoshi (789351)

      Unless you're in the house 13 meters down the street from the real target :)

    • Actually, the Hellfire has a relatively small warhead. 18-20lbs depending on model. Hitting the house 50 feet from your intended target away may well make a big difference, especially if there is a wall or two between.
  • by mandark1967 (630856) on Friday September 24, 2010 @03:46PM (#33691158) Homepage Journal

    No one will ever need more than 13 meters accuracy.

  • by jpapon (1877296) on Friday September 24, 2010 @03:51PM (#33691224) Journal

    to direct secret assassination drones in central Asia.

    The CIA has the authority to direct secret assassination drones? Inside of Pakistan and possibly other countries?

    Did we learn NOTHING from the Bay of Pigs, Nicaragua, the equipping of the Mujaheddin with weapons, etc... ? The CIA should not be fighting wars. We're supposed to be the city upon the hill. We shouldn't be fighting our wars in secrecy.

    • by h4rr4r (612664)

      Of course we did not, or we would not be creating more Irans by propping up dictators.

    • by frank_adrian314159 (469671) on Friday September 24, 2010 @03:57PM (#33691284) Homepage

      To quote many prominent Republicans, "9-11 changed everything."

      To be fair, it did. It gave cover for authoritarian assholes to do whatever they wanted to do. Fighting wars in secrecy is just the tip of the iceberg. Welcome to the large gulag, comrade.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by blair1q (305137)

      Dude. That's been common knowledge for years.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by couchslug (175151)

      Equipping the Muj with weapons was worth it, even counting the blowback (which was more consequence of ABANDONING A-stan than equipping the Muj).

      Lest we forget, the Cold War was a VASTLY more important and larger struggle than the current police actions. A few thousand or few tens of thousands dead in late consequence of that existential conflict is a trifle. We are too easily impressed by small wars nowadays.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        A few thousand or few tens of thousands dead in late consequence of that existential conflict is a trifle. We are too easily impressed by small wars nowadays.

        What do you mean we kemosabe?

        Wouldn't it be nice if the people who felt it was acceptable to kill a few thousand people for their political goals were included in the total?

        • by Anonymous Coward

          the risk of being included in the total, which is why they tend to win if they are also smart and can get enough resources.

          Revolutions actually run on people who are much less risk-averse, including the ultimate risk of death. Pretending that everyone shares the same aversion to the risk of violent death that is characteristic of educated urbanites is naive. In many cultures of the world Western style conflict avoidance will get you exploited, enslaved, or even killed.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by couchslug (175151)

          "Wouldn't it be nice if the people who felt it was acceptable to kill a few thousand people for their political goals were included in the total?"

          They frequently risk that, and fear doesn't stop those who think the game is worth the candle. Killing thousands of enemies has often been the price of progress.

          Killing thousands of Brits, Tories and Hessians freed the US from England. Killing thousands of Confederates freed the slaves. Killing millions of Nazis and Italian Fascists saved Europe. Killing millions

      • by jpapon (1877296)
        I'm fine with fighting wars to bring harm to those who seek to harm us. I'm even ok with fighting wars to remove tyrants who bring conflict and genocide to our planet.

        I'm just not ok with fighting these wars in secrecy, or the fact that my country condones assassination (i.e. murder) in any form. If we have a just cause, there is no need to use a veil of secrecy.

        Not to mention the fact that we live in a (representative) democracy, so keeping the voters uninformed is no better than rigging an election.

        A

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Lehk228 (705449)
        yea anything that directly attacks the supremacy of our corporate overlords must be stopped at any cost, though preferably that cost should be paid in proletariat blood and recycled as motivation for the next war of lies.
    • Of course we learned something: "Think Happy Thoughts."
  • ROFL (Score:3, Funny)

    by sir lox elroy (735636) on Friday September 24, 2010 @03:52PM (#33691230) Homepage
    What did the CIA also think the Toyota "Bug" was a feature. Great car, drives it self. :-)
  • by skynexus (778600) on Friday September 24, 2010 @03:58PM (#33691288)

    Military drones, armed and dangerous, operating software resulting from IP theft?

    Heh... I'd love to see the Business Software Alliance go after these guys... :-)

    • by e4g4 (533831)

      I'd love to see the Business Software Alliance go after these guys

      It would be a bloodbath - the BSA guys can only muster the support of the US Marshals. Somehow I don't think they'd come equipped with armed attack drones.

  • 13 meters? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by gandhi_2 (1108023) on Friday September 24, 2010 @04:02PM (#33691340) Homepage

    so what?

    hellfires are laser guided, not GPS. a predator reporting its position as being 13 meters wrong is basically nothing....and a non-issue with regards to missile targeting.

    if the predator was dropping JDAMS, i could see the issue. but even then, 13 meters is well within the CPE allowed for the JDAM.

    • Re:13 meters? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by mosb1000 (710161) <mosb1000@mac.com> on Friday September 24, 2010 @04:19PM (#33691514)

      If my understanding is correct, this software was used to determine the locations of people making phone calls. So if it's off by 13 meters, the operator may chose the wrong target. The missile being laser guided doesn't help you if you're laser guiding it to the wrong place.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by gandhi_2 (1108023)

        You misunderstand how the hellfire / predator platform works.

        Several systems can fly the predator to the target area. Once in the target area, remote operators designate the target on the video feed, which is to say (in this phone call scenario) the operators designate the person making the phone call on the TV screen. The target designator is a laser device on the predator which sends encoded information in the beam to actually hit the target. Where the laser target beam hits the target, it shines. Electro

        • Re:13 meters? (Score:4, Insightful)

          by jpapon (1877296) on Friday September 24, 2010 @04:45PM (#33691850) Journal

          In any case, 13 meters is nothing. Civilians have been watching too many movies to think war is fought on that scale.

          13 meters is a hell of a lot if there's a hospital or school ten meters from the target. This isn't warfare, it's assassinations. A 13 m discrepancy when you're trying to assassinate someone is pretty damn unacceptable.

          Also, the system was used to locate targets. So it might say the target is in one hut, when in fact, they are in a hut 13 meters away. The drone's pilot would then designate the wrong hut with the laser. The system is for target selection, not missile or drone guidance.

    • So a 13 meter error is acceptable, even though that's the result of a bug caused by copying software that was accurate?

      You must be in the military, Mr. Ghandi, if that is your real name...

      • by gandhi_2 (1108023)

        How the software came into being is important. If it was ripped off from someone else, they should fix that. If there's errors, they should fix those.

        But 13 meters? You must have NEVER served in any armed force, Friend of NYCL, if that is your real name...

        • Re:13 meters? (Score:5, Insightful)

          by jpapon (1877296) on Friday September 24, 2010 @04:54PM (#33691952) Journal
          FFS, I served, and while 13 meters isn't all that much, bad intelligence is still bad intelligence.

          And while yes, being 13 meters away from a hellfire hit is still going to turn your brain to mush, a blase attitude towards the need to be as accurate and efficient as possible in target selection is what leads to blue on blue and death of civies. Once you start accepting 13 meter inaccuracies as "good enough" you're on a slippery slope. You want to be as accurate as your weapon system allows you to be, and you always want to strive to improve upon it.

    • by ojintoad (1310811)
      Could you (or someone else with satisfactory knowledge) decrypt that for those unfamiliar with your acronyms and understanding of military technology?
  • by countSudoku() (1047544) on Friday September 24, 2010 @04:23PM (#33691572) Homepage

    Capture these badly programmed drones, reinstall them with some sweet, sweet Linux goodness, use them for fun aerial combat play, and taking snaps of bikini-clad neighbors. Problem solved. Patent not pending. Come as you are. There you go.

  • Dear Terrorists, Due to a minor software glitch we request that you stay within 13 meters of your cell phone at all times. No reason, we just appreciate your help. Thanks, The US Government P.S. Don't look up P.P.S. ....no...what whistling noise do you hear?
  • Anonymous Coward (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward

    Anyone who works in/for the U.S. military industrial complex should quit if they have any shred of morality in their being. It's way beyond defense.

  • by gestalt_n_pepper (991155) on Friday September 24, 2010 @04:44PM (#33691826)

    1) US creates military drones used in Pakistan.

    2) Drones are controlled using software.

    3) Software company that writes drone software is bought by IBM.

    4) Software can now, potentially, be outsourced to IBM development personnel in um, Pakistan.

    Is it just me, or is something wrong with this picture?

    • by Ukab the Great (87152) on Friday September 24, 2010 @04:59PM (#33692040)

      Back when I was a lowly QA tester for a company that took DARPA contracts involving things specific to North Korea, it never ceased to amaze me that the entire programmer staff were H1B's from China, who just happens to be North Korea's main ally, who were hired solely for their utter cheapness.

      This is why I just can't take tin-foil hat people seriously.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by waferhead (557795)

      1) US creates military drones used in Pakistan.

      2) Drones are controlled using software.

      3) Software company that writes drone software is bought by IBM.

      4) Software can now, potentially, be outsourced to IBM development personnel in um, Pakistan.

      Is it just me, or is something wrong with this picture?

      Don't ask me, before I followed the links, I was trying to figure out how IBM bought the CIA ;-)

  • Illegal Software (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Alcoholist (160427) on Friday September 24, 2010 @05:07PM (#33692162) Homepage

    The CIA? This is a bunch who allegedly run clandestine torture camps. Use illegal software - oh no, they'd never do that...

  • by dontmakemethink (1186169) on Friday September 24, 2010 @06:53PM (#33693250)

    The entire point of American warfare is to expend as much ammunition as possible so to stick the American public with the biggest bill possible. A 13 meter margin of error means you can justify using three guided missiles instead of one. How does a military contractor not see the benefit of that? How are they supposed to create business for you if you're tying them up in court!

    These clowns can't possibly think they're actually looking for WMD's and Osama Bin Laden could they? They're looking for an intractable enemy to spend billions trying to irradicate, and they've found them in the Taliban, just like Isreal found the Palestinians. Spooky sneaky "bad guys" are literally booming business.

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