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Dutch Radio Geek Tracking Libyan Airstrikes 187

Posted by Soulskill
from the enforcing-transparency dept.
jfruhlinger writes "The days when citizens could only learn about a distant war from the government or the institutional press are long over. A Dutch ex-military geek exemplifies the new way information comes out, tracking attack flights on Libya, and even tweeting messages to the US command responsible for the strikes."
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Dutch Radio Geek Tracking Libyan Airstrikes

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 21, 2011 @01:43PM (#35561894)

    Hitting his house in 3... 2... 1...

    • by rednip (186217) <rednip.gmail@com> on Monday March 21, 2011 @02:52PM (#35562794) Journal

      Yea, because he 'intercepted' an open frequency call for ships to stay in port, this was deliberately broadcast to keep people from traveling. Next up 'man who hears siren' will be going to jail for knowing where the police are.

      If the Pentagon had transmitted that encrypted, it'd be pretty useless as a general warning.

  • is what I call real geek!

    Respect, meneer Huub!

  • by vawwyakr (1992390) on Monday March 21, 2011 @01:48PM (#35561972)
    The US military wants to "talk" this guy for his "spying".
    • Assuming the US isn't releasing precisely the information it wants to - probably accurate without the no-fly zone, possibly inaccurate within - and just happy that there's another repeater of (mis)information for the enemy.

      The conspiratorial extreme would be to assert that this Dutch fellow is knowingly cooperating with the US. The more likely truth is that fortune has just provided the US with another useful tool. If he soon goes quiet... well, we still cannot say for sure.

    • by Wyatt Earp (1029) on Monday March 21, 2011 @02:58PM (#35562886)

      He did the same thing on forums during the '98 raids on Iraq, '99 in Serbia/Kosovo, some of 2001 in Afghanistan, IOF in '03, etc.

      If the US military wanted to "talk to him" they would have before.

      Some of the stuff he passes on is helpful, like identifying a plane that has a transponder set to the wrong setting, and passing it on to Africa Command.

  • by Compaqt (1758360) on Monday March 21, 2011 @01:49PM (#35561984) Homepage

    Military aircraft have to provide basic information about their position over unencrypted, unclassified UHF and VHF radio networks; otherwise, theyâ(TM)d risk slamming into civilian jets in mid-air. That allows savvy listeners like Huub to use radio frequency scanners, amplifiers, and antennas to capture the communications.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by geekmux (1040042)

      Military aircraft have to provide basic information about their position over unencrypted, unclassified UHF and VHF radio networks; otherwise, theyâ(TM)d risk slamming into civilian jets in mid-air. That allows savvy listeners like Huub to use radio frequency scanners, amplifiers, and antennas to capture the communications.

      Which ultimately begs the question as to why ALL aircraft transmissions (civilian or otherwise) aren't encrypted.

      Don't get me wrong, I'm kind of glad they aren't for cool hacking tricks like this, but seriously, kind of makes you wonder...I mean we're only talking about a few hundred tons of metal flying through the air with thousands of gallons of jet fuel. What could possibly go wrong?

      • by Hazel Bergeron (2015538) on Monday March 21, 2011 @02:06PM (#35562190) Journal

        I don't understand why that would help. You have to provide the information in order to not smack into another aircraft, so every other aircraft/ATC in the vicinity needs to know how to decrypt the information. This means that the decryption keys are effectively public.

        Anyway, is the US still consistent with its rule about most of the spectrum being a-ok to listen in on? Unlike the UK's Wireless Telegraphy Act 1949, where the default assumption is that you can't. And, of course, assuming he's in Holland... what about Dutch law?

        (also, "begs the question" etc.)

        • by DarthBart (640519) on Monday March 21, 2011 @02:30PM (#35562536)

          Current US law allows people to receive and listen to un-encrypted radio transmissions, except for cellular telephone channels, as long as the reception is for personal use only and not to be used in the commission of a crime.

          That means you can sit around listening to the cops all day long, as long as you don't say "Hey, I heard all the cops are at the donut shop on the north side, so I can go rob the southside bank". It also means you can't legally sit around at your taxi company office and listen to the competition's radio system and jump their calls.

          • by selven (1556643)

            Wait, what's the point of making it illegal to use something to commit a crime? I rob a bank, I commit one crime, I rob a bank using radio interception, I've committed that crime, and a completely new crime? Doesn't make much sense to me.

        • by eudaemon (320983) on Monday March 21, 2011 @02:55PM (#35562848)

          Traffic handling at private airports rely upon a common shared radio band. If you're in a Cessna 150 doing touch and goes at your local uncontrolled airport, and someone in a King Air announces on direct approach and a 3 mile final, this is useful information that keeps you both safe. Technically the lower of the two planes on approach gets the right of way, but if someone's flying a plane that stalls near what's considered a moderate speed for your plane, you get the hell out of the way.

          With the King Air's announcement you know which direction he's landing (assuming you don't already know from normal operations or cross-winds), roughly when he's going to get there, and that you need to either park yourself in the pattern* or land and get the hell out of his way.

          Most people think there's air traffic control everywhere. There is not, so traffic follows a predefined pattern with customary entrance and exit protocols. If you need to stay out of the final approach for someone, you have control to do that without asking anyone else, assuming you follow the predefined rules.

          • by metlin (258108)

            Most people think there's air traffic control everywhere. There is not, so traffic follows a predefined pattern with customary entrance and exit protocols. If you need to stay out of the final approach for someone, you have control to do that without asking anyone else, assuming you follow the predefined rules.

            Yup. And I'll add that many of those rules were derived from maritime rules, and are either the same ones or similar to the ones that ships use in open water.

      • We cant even convince all websites to use SSL, why do you think we could convince all aitlines to encrypt their data?

        And lets not even get started on the antiquated ATC systems world wide. (US included)

        • by blair1q (305137)

          They're not as antiquated as you think, and it costs a metric assload to upgrade them, and to support backward-compatibility with aircraft and airfields that are just not economical ever to upgrade.

      • by nedlohs (1335013) on Monday March 21, 2011 @02:12PM (#35562306)

        Because you want them to be public. The other aircraft, including those of your "enemies" and the light aircraft being flown by Bob the gardener down the street need to be able to communicate to avoid smashing into each other.

        Encrypting serves no purpose when the entire idea is for anyone to be able to receive the information.

        • by demonbug (309515)

          Because you want them to be public. The other aircraft, including those of your "enemies" and the light aircraft being flown by Bob the gardener down the street need to be able to communicate to avoid smashing into each other.

          Encrypting serves no purpose when the entire idea is for anyone to be able to receive the information.

          Not sure about the "enemies" part... I'm sure military aircraft turn off their transponders before getting to "enemy" territory; this guy is just tracking them while they traverse the thousands of miles of civilian-controlled airspace between home base and targets.

          But yeah; no reason at all to encrypt transponder transmissions, the whole point of which are to let people know where you are.

      • by Obfuscant (592200)

        Which ultimately begs the question as to why ALL aircraft transmissions (civilian or otherwise) aren't encrypted. Don't get me wrong, I'm kind of glad they aren't for cool hacking tricks like this, but seriously, kind of makes you wonder...I mean we're only talking about a few hundred tons of metal flying through the air with thousands of gallons of jet fuel. What could possibly go wrong?

        Well, you just explained why they aren't. Simple analog AM communications are about as simple as it gets, and still radios fail. Imagine making them all digital encrypted.

        The other obvious reason is, why bother? If all aircraft signals are encrypted, then everyone would have access to the keys and the radios to listen. What do you accomplish by encrypting? Who do you stop from listening? Only Mom and Pop who have a casual interest in the chatter. The guys who would use the data for harm (like tweeting the

      • by mangu (126918) on Monday March 21, 2011 @02:18PM (#35562398)

        why ALL aircraft transmissions (civilian or otherwise) aren't encrypted. ... we're only talking about a few hundred tons of metal flying through the air with thousands of gallons of jet fuel. What could possibly go wrong?

        WHAT could go wrong? Let me tell you what could go wrong. There's a hundred tons of metal flying around. Its position is *secret* because some dumbfuck thought it would be better to encrypt all its transmissions.

        Then comes uncle Bill in his Cessna. He doesn't know where the big passenger aircraft is, because its position is *secret*, since some dumbfuck though it necessary to encrypt all transmissions from the aircraft.

        Do you begin to see now why aircraft transmissions *cannot* be encrypted?!!!

        OK, I know your next argument; Imagine all aircraft transmissions are encrypted and all aircraft must have a receiver able to decode those transmissions. Only registered aircraft owners have access to the receivers, so what could possibly go wrong?

        Think of the thousands of small airfields all over the world. Climb a fence, cut a padlock at night, pick a receiver. Or buy it from a salvage firm, grease some hands, whatever. It wouldn't stay secret very long (ask Sony about that).

           

      • by Caerdwyn (829058) on Monday March 21, 2011 @02:32PM (#35562560) Journal

        Which ultimately begs the question as to why ALL aircraft transmissions (civilian or otherwise) aren't encrypted.

        Legacy.

        The cost of avionics is extremely high when those avionics go into a commercially-built aircraft; every piece of avionics must be certified for use in a specific aircraft model and revision. A VHF radio transceiver going into a home-built "experimental" aircraft can be less than half the price as that going into a Cessna 172, even though it is identical, new production. That approval-sticker is one expensive bit of paper and adhesive.

        It gets far worse for passenger-carrying commercial aircraft. Not only does the equipment have to be certified for use in-type; when you change out the equipment, you have to update the aircraft's MEL (minimum equipment list) you also have to refresh your training regimen, and conduct that retraining and certification for any flight deck crew that might end up flying that plane, The expense would be very high, some carriers and private owners couldn't afford it, and it would involve downtime. It would certainly be a windfall for the likes of Bendix-King, but for commercial and private aircraft operators, a new avionics mandate that doesn't grandfather existing equipment is ruinous.

        General aviation is already expensive enough and pilot shortages are happening. With the military turning out fewer and fewer pilots (they're paid well and with military air fleets becoming smaller and more expensive, there are fewer of them), with four-year aviation programs costing as much as Ivy League schools but with starting pay less than 40,000 a year, general aviation is critical for producing charter and airline pilots. General aviation is already in trouble, with new aircraft costing as much as a house, the existing fleet aging, and fuel and maintenance costs pushing operation of even a little 172 to near a hundred dollars per engine-hour. Adding a new five-figure-per-aircraft mandate is simply not possible.

        As for open transmissions... that's a hard requirement, by treaty. Everyone has to be able to listen in on everyone else and be able to talk to everyone on a moment's notice. The aforementioned 172 is on the same frequencies as the 747s when they're in the same airspace. There's even a rule about language. Air traffic control is ALWAYS in English. Yeah yeah yeah cultural imperialism cry me a river. Everyone must understand everyone, or planes slam into each other.

        I'm a private pilot; every time I fly I'm reminded that I could be digested by a Boeing Buzzard. Whenever I go near Class B or Class C airspace, ATC is constantly in communication with everyone asking "Do you see that 737? Good. Do you have visual on that Beechcraft? No? Descend 1000 feet." And in minor airports without an air traffic controller, the pilots perform their own control, by speaking to each other on a common frequency and following established procedures and calls at checkpoints. Set 122.7 Unicom. "Cessna 53614 inbound South County runway 31, on the 45 at the golf course. Cessna 53614 downwind, South County runway 31. Cessna 53614 on base, South County runway 31. Cessna 53614 on final, South County runway 31. Cessna 53614, clear of active runway." The guys I'm talking to, like me, are flying 40-year-old (or older!) aircraft with analog gauges, no on-aircraft radar, and a few don't even have transponders.

        An example of why this is critical from my own experience. I was a student pilot at the aforementioned South County, practicing takeoffs and landings. Round and round touch-and-go, solo flights. There were four others doing the same. Everything was going like clockwork (well, counterclockwork, the pattern was counterclockwise), until... I had just taken off, climbing out on the "upwind" leg of the pattern. 65 knots, best climb rate, about 500 feet above ground level, when I saw an inbound aircraft aimed straight at me. The bastard was going the wrong way, and apparently on the wrong frequency. Slam the yoke forward, turn to the right.

        • by harl (84412)

          >Air traffic control is ALWAYS in English. Yeah yeah yeah cultural imperialism cry me a river. Everyone must understand everyone, or planes slam >into each other.

          It's not cultural imperialism. Last I checked the States not only invented the airplane and the airline industry but also have the most operations per day. No one else can make a claim for language.

        • I was looking for the right place to insert my own comment. You're on target - the ONLY people who would benefit from such a mandate would be the encrypted transmitter manufacturers. It would cost a wheelbarrow of money from every passenger, along with two or three wheelbarrow loads of from taxpayers. In the process, any number of smaller businesses would go bankrupt, and be gobbled up by the sharks at the top.

          In short, it would be a disaster for all but a very select few.

        • by sznupi (719324)

          general aviation is critical for producing charter and airline pilots

          Less than you imply. It wasn't really so hot in the first place in many parts of the world. Its relative ("Big Mac Index"-style) costs were and are often significantly higher than the ones you're concerned about. "Adding a new five-figure-per-aircraft mandate" is certainly possible, many places operate on pretty much such basis.

          Air traffic control is ALWAYS in English. Yeah yeah yeah cultural imperialism cry me a river.

          That is not true, certainly not for general aviation (and AFAIK not strictly for airlines; at least Russians often demand somebody fluent in Russian, in the cockpit)

          • by Caerdwyn (829058)
            It's true for all international operations. Local operations may be in the local language, but as of 1 January 2008 all international operations have an English language requirement, and air crews and controllers serving those operations must demonstrate proficiency in English. Please refer to the ICAO discussion of Amendment 164 to Annex I [icao.int] for details.
            • by Unbeliever (35305)
              Again, you misinterpret the requirement. Go to liveatc.net and go browse the non-English speaking feeds. You won't find one that's exclusively English.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by zAPPzAPP (1207370)

      Wait, they don't switch these off, when they go for a bombing run?
      Doesn't this defeat the whole idea of stealth?

      • Guess they consider the risk of colliding with a civilian aircraft more threatening than Gadhafi's anti-aircraft systems...
      • by ElectricTurtle (1171201) on Monday March 21, 2011 @02:17PM (#35562376)
        Considering that many aerial engagements are now done sight-unseen by radar only, IFF is really important, doubly so in a no-fly zone. These are not particularly stealthy aircraft involved here either.
        • by Wyatt Earp (1029)

          Some of these are particularly stealthy aircraft, Rafale, F/A-18 E/F/G aren't stealth, but they are stealthy compared to F-15E, F-18C and Tornado.

          B-2 bombers spoofed the ATC watchers by using a tanker/transport call sign on the transponder the entire trip over and back, those are really stealthy.

          Think of stealthy this way
          MiG-21 through MiG-29, F-16, F-15, F-18 A/B/C, Tornado, Mirage F-1, Mirage 2000, Super Etendard - really not stealthy

          Su-27-33, Rafale, F-18 E/F/G, B-1B, Tomahawk cruise missile - getting st

      • Yeah, i'd figure that too. Especially since Libya is a no-fly zone.

        • by Compaqt (1758360)

          I have no knowledge about this, but I'd guess they'd be broadcasting in the clear over the Mediterranean, and then once over restricted (NFZ) areas, switch to encrypted.

      • by GooberToo (74388) on Monday March 21, 2011 @02:23PM (#35562456)

        Yes. They absolutely switch these off. Only the elements which are completely intended for public ears (including potential enemies) are transmitted in the clear. Position reports will typically, only be provided when flying in high traffic areas where civilian traffic is likely, such as airports or published navigation aids. Furthermore, many of the cited navigation aids are likely to have been created by the military and the name of such aid may only be known to the military. So them saying, 135' from RAFLO, or some such, has little direct meaning since the location of RAFLO is completely unknown. Furthermore, that aid may be renamed later for different missions. So even if the enemy figures out where RAFLO is at, they may not realize TRKSTOP is simply a new name for RAFLO.

        Lastly, you need to understand, all of these concepts are extremely well understood in the signals discipline, which means some of these transmissions from a given flight may be completely fictitious in nature and transmitted with the full awareness the enemy is listening.

        • by blair1q (305137)

          Makes me wonder. It'd be interesting to see if GPS is currently giving out whacky numbers.

          • by GooberToo (74388)

            Certainly possible, but I doubt it. Remember, the goal is to bait the enemy into engaging you with radar and AA-systems. Part of that means allowing the enemy know where you are.

            When you think about it, its really incredible these aircraft can even get off the ground given the size of the balls these pilots have.

      • by _Sprocket_ (42527) on Monday March 21, 2011 @03:56PM (#35563660)

        Wait, they don't switch these off, when they go for a bombing run? Doesn't this defeat the whole idea of stealth?

        Not all military aircraft are stealth. Note one of the examples is a F-16 running Wild Weasel missions; not a stealth aircraft. Aircraft are also pretty noisy on the RF spectrum. During the Gulf War, there was a very high demand for F-4G Wild Weasels. Initial Weasel strikes did a pretty good job taking out the normal collection of AAA / SAM threats. But most missions still called for a F-4G in the mix to suppress remaining SAM threats. Those remaining threats tended to remain because as soon as they identified a F-4 by its nav radar, they shut down. Mission planners took a risk and occasionally included a F-4C (unarmed reconnaissance aircraft) in the place of a F-4G since the Recy looked like a Weasel to SAM operators and essentially filled the same role when SAM threats when offline to avoid being attacked by what they mis-identified as a Weasel.

      • by demonbug (309515)

        Wait, they don't switch these off, when they go for a bombing run?
        Doesn't this defeat the whole idea of stealth?

        I'm sure they turn off their transponders before entering Libyan airspace (or even coming close, probably). This guy is tracking them as they fly over the Continent, through civilian-controlled airspace, on the way to and from bombing runs.

    • by houghi (78078)

      I could imagine that if there is a No-Fly-Zone and a War-Zone, they turn it off. If there is a civilian aircraft in that area, being accidentally hit by another plane is least of their problems.

      • by blair1q (305137)

        Well, since the entire world was informed that Libya is a no-fly zone, anything on the wing in that neighborhood is now a legal target. Which I think is your meaning though in the fog of war it's best to ACK and NACK.

      • by harl (84412)

        How is loss of a very expensive fighter and the loss of an even more expensive pilot "the least of their problems?"

        That's a very serious problem.

  • - what *is* the ICAO airport code for the USS Barry?

  • by vlm (69642) on Monday March 21, 2011 @01:54PM (#35562044)

    I was amazed at how little detail there was in the article. Its just, like all magic and stuff because he's so smart and experienced. And we're only going to use one syllable words here, because you're... not. What a Pulitzer of modern journalism, almost worth catching a fish so I can wrap it.

    Sounds a lot like a scanner guy with an ADS-B receiver, either homemade or purchased something like this:

    http://www.radargadgets.com/ [radargadgets.com].

    Google for ADS-B and 1090 MHz and terms like that, you'll get the idea real quick of how he does it.

    • by jesseck (942036)
      I think he goes beyond that. He stated that he uses the receivers, and then also correlates that data with other information sources online. While I don't think listening to the traffic is necessarily exceptional, bringing together the data and correlating it with other sources of information is unique. It also seems he has done this for a long time- part of TFA mentions this guy has been doing it for a long time.
  • Has the article's author ever heard of ham radio?

  • HF (Score:5, Interesting)

    by fauxhemian (1281852) on Monday March 21, 2011 @02:03PM (#35562162)
    I've been able to track a lot of aircraft movements on Shortwave/HF radio from Ireland - and it's surprising just how much information still goes out over unencrypted links. Friday night, there was a marked increase in French AWACS and support aircraft activity - and then on Saturday other frequencies came alive with a whole host of NATO aircraft; for instance RAF Transports, Tankers, Surveillance, Strike and Fighter aircraft. Some aircraft discussed the targets they'd hit, the ordinance they had used and their current bearings and distance from Benghazi. There have been some intriguing transmissions - for instance aircraft operating at altitudes which are beyond their published service ceilings and voices co-ordinating movements from countries whose governments voiced opposition to the NFZ. Over the years frequency hopping and encryption have reduced the number of military transmissions to be read and understood on HF, but clearly there's still interesting ones out there. On a tangent - an Israeli Numbers Station , designated E10 and famous for lending the title to a Wilco album amongst other things, stopped transmitting on March 1st of this year - given the recent events in Egypt, it's interesting timing.
    • by jittles (1613415)
      With regard to HF, the US Army is actually removing HF radios from certain attack helicopters.
  • I wonder if transmissions from the actual attackingaircraft can be received in the clear.
  • by GooberToo (74388) on Monday March 21, 2011 @02:07PM (#35562216)

    @USAfricaCommand be advised, one of your WEASEL's F-16CJ from 23th FS Spangdahlem Germany has his transponder Mode-S on! NOT secure!

    That means the F-16 in question was transmitting both its altitude and GPS position for all to see. Then again, if its truly a wild weasel platform [wikipedia.org], that may be entirely its intent.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 21, 2011 @02:44PM (#35562720)

    The news media wasn't particularly helpful with geographic details either before the airstrikes or after. Their maps are very generalized and sometimes erroneous or omit important sites. The media would say "battles in Ras Lanuf in eastern Libya", and there was a poor sense of where exactly that was or how far it was from Benghazi (how long would it take Ghaddafi's forces to drive from there to Benghazi, for example?). And where exactly are the airfields and military bases that were either the source of Ghaddafi's attacks or the places being attacked by the local people?

    So, in frustration, I spent a weekend finding all the visible airfields, military bases, surface-to-air missile, oil pipeline/storage tank/refinery/oil port infrastructure, etc. that I could spot in the Google Earth imagery. The Google Earth program is best for hunting, but Google Maps can show some of the results. For example, here's a SAM site to the south of Tripoli airport [google.com], here's a SAM site in Tripoli itself [google.com]. These seem to be two different types of missile setups, with missiles visible on the second one, but hidden in sheds in the first picture. Here's Mitiga air base [google.com] in Tripoli. If you look in the SE corner you can see MIGs parked on the ground. There are also some helicopters, including some big, twin-blade Chinooks. Here's a big ammo/weapons dump in the SE of the city [google.com]. Here's the ammo/weapons dump south of Adjdabiya [google.com] that the Ghaddafi forces bombed a few times to try to prevent the rebels from getting the stores there. Notice the difference in color of the ground -- the security fences keep the grazing wildlife out, so there are more plants inside the fence == darker. An easy way to spot the secure fenced-in areas even if you can't see the fence itself. Practically every major city has military bases of some size (usually high security fences with guard towers) where you can see APCs parked, or occasionally tanks and tank transporters and other heavy weapons. Even if you can't see them out in the open air you can often recognize the warehouses that have this sort of equipment because of the security fences and the very WIDE turns in the roads around the buildings. The various military airbases around the country (at least 8 or 10 of them) often have the planes hidden in earth-covered bunkers, but this centrally-located base near Hun [google.com] has plenty of visible aircraft, including ones recognizable as Tu-22 bombers [google.com] and MiG-25 fighters [google.com]. This large airbase south of Sirte [google.com] has quite a few small fighters visible in addition to transport aircraft on the big tarmacs.

    Besides military assets, there are other types of infrastructure that are important, such as this large storage tank area to the SW of the Ras Lanuf oil port/refinery [google.com], where several pipelines converge. There are several storage/port areas like this at coastal points along the southern end of the Bay of Sirte. The oil fields them

  • Sure tweeting is all cute and everything, but soon we will start getting YouTube videos of "Cruise Missile FAIL".... Then the inevitable "fake." comments.

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