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Uh, Did Someone Leave US Surveillance Drone Feeds Live on the Public Internet?

If it isn’t a live feed, then what is it? A simulation? A prerecorded loop?

David Axe

The US government apparently recently streamed, possibly live on the public internet, footage from at least one military-style drone flying over Florida's panhandle.

The drone appeared to be flying thousands of feet over the coast, aiming its high-tech camera at random civilian boaters as part of what could have been some kind of test—or maybe a demonstration by a military contractor. The footage is still up on the obscure website and is reportedly a recording. It could, by now, be months old.

Yes, this is weird. Especially considering that one of the agencies that apparently sponsored the feed is the National Reconnaissance Office, which oversees America's fleet of top-secret spy satellites.

Journalist Kenneth Lipp noticed the possible former live stream while doing some fairly broad online research on May 1. "I ... ended up watching jet-skiers via US government aerial video feed," Lipp wrote on his blog. A similar page appears to display a separate feed from a separate drone.

"FMV" is military parlance for full-motion video, the kind that unmanned aerial vehicles such as the Predator and Reaper shoot in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and other war zones—sometimes right before firing a missile or dropping a bomb on some suspected terrorist.

The US Defense Department possesses thousands of drones and routinely tests them at bases all over the United States. Perhaps not coincidentally, Eglin Air Force Base, a major Air Force test site, is situated a short distance from where Lipp's drone is or was apparently flying.

The webpage with the video includes the logos of three government organizations. One is the Chantilly, Virginia-based NRO. Another is the NRO's Aerospace Data Facility-East, an installation at Fort Belvoir in Virginia that is best known for controlling spy satellites. Finally, there's the Washington Innovation Center of the Combat Information Center, whatever that is.

NRO spokeswoman Loretta DeSio told Motherboard she wasn't immediately familiar with the video. She said she'd look into it but failed to respond by deadline.

"As for the feed being put on the internet, even by accident, that makes me go hmmmm"

Scott Swanson, a former Air Force Predator operator who helped lead the team that added missiles to the drone starting in 2000, confirmed that the video feed seems legit. "The graphics overlay looks like an updated Predator-type feed but could be any of the modern [electro-optical or infrared] systems," Swanson told Motherboard.

What's weird is that the drone and its controllers appear to have been working for the National Reconnaissance Office, which rarely allows free access to its activities—activities that don't typically include drone tests. "Seems strange for me that this would appear on an NRO feed," Swanson commented.

It eventually became apparent to Lipp and others that the video on the NRO-sponsored site was not live. Lipp noted that the video feed seemed to show clear skies at a time when the weather over the panhandle was, in fact, cloudy. "This doesn't appear to in fact be a live feed," Lipp tweeted on May 4.

Also, the video showed bright blue skies even when it was night in Florida.

Journalist Sean Gallagher did some poking around and concluded that the drone video was shot in February, and that a Pentagon supplier uploaded it to the website as a part of a product demonstration. For his part, Gallagher seems to believe the contractor that built the site hoped no one outside of the NRO would notice it. "Security through obscurity," Gallagher tweeted.

Regardless of when the stream was recorded or how old it is, the NRO might have erred in allowing the public to view it. "As for the feed being put on the internet, even by accident, that makes me go hmmmm," Swanson said.