LONDON, England -- U.S. officials plan to encrypt data after it was revealed that European satellite TV viewers can tune into live spy plane transmissions. CNN confirmed on Thursday that footage from American aircraft flying over Medovci, Bosnia, could still be accessed live by satellite. The alarm was raised by British satellite enthusiast John Locker who told CNN: "I thought that the U.S. had made a deadly error. My first thought was that they were sending their spy plane pictures through the wrong satellite by mistake, and broadcasting secret information across Europe."
Locker, from the Wirral, north-western England, said he tried repeatedly to warn British, NATO and U.S. officials about the leak but his warnings were set aside. One officer wrote back to tell him that the problem was a "known hardware limitation." Locker said that it was easier for terrorists to tune into live video of U.S. intelligence activity than to pick up Disney cartoons or newly released movies. The high-intensity signal can be picked up using just basic equipment.
Pentagon officials told CNN's Jamie McIntyre the video was deliberately left "in the clear" and did not show sensitive information. The video, which on Thursday appeared to show a region's mountainous terrain, military-type vehicles, and other landmarks, is coming from either an unmanned Hunter surveillance drone, or the manned P-3 type of aircraft. The P-3 is similar to the four-engined, propeller plane that was forced to land on China's Hainan Island in April, 2001, after a mid-air collision with one of Beijing's warplanes.
Pentagon officials said the only "story" regarding the video would be that having to send such video in the clear underscores a lack of technology among NATO allies. The unclassified video is made available by agreement with the U.S. and any NATO allies who have troops deployed in the Bosnian region. A NATO spokesman in Brussels told CNN that it was a U.S. issue and the Pentagon had decided on the level of security at which it would accept the material.
Locker said he was able to identify the spy aircraft, Hunter and the P-3 which were helpfully identified in the corner of the screen. Geoff Bains, editor of Britain's "What Satellite TV?" magazine, said any satellite TV enthusiast in Europe could tune in with a one-metre dish costing about 60 ($90) and a free-to-air DBS digital satellite receiver costing from 150 ($220) upwards. "There's nothing complicated about the hardware to receive the signal." he told CNN.
Viewers tuning into the satellite this week were able to watch a security alert round the U.S. Army's headquarters at Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo. Last week, the spy plane provided airborne cover for a heavily protected patrol of the Macedonian-Kosovo border near Skopje. The pictures, from manned spy aircraft and drones, have been broadcast through a satellite over Brazil. The links, which are not encrypted, have also been transmitted over the Internet.
Locker said: "Obviously I'm not a military analyst and I'm not an expert in this field but I am just amazed this type of material is going out free-to-air. They put up data quite often which identified vehicles and the area to within two metres. That to me is a risk."
Richard Perle, chairman of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board, told the BBC: "There are plans to encrypt this data. We have discovered in the period since September 11 how important this sort of real-time intelligence is. Now we are making much better use of this kind of information and it will make sense to encrypt it in the future."
Defence analyst Andrew Brookes of the International Institute for Strategic Studies told CNN the information being transmitted did not pose a risk to the planes or crew, and seemed designed for training purposes. He said the decision to use channels accessible to the public was a question of prioritising as there are only limited numbers of secret military satellite channels available.
(Reported by CNN on 13 June 2002.)
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