Iran's ability to down and hack a U.S. intelligence drone remains unlikely. What is certain, however, is some of their technological claims are completely false. The Middle Eastern country bordering the Persian Gulf says it recently "caught and brought under control" a U.S. drone, using air defense units and control systems from the Revolutionary Guard Navy. The Iranian government released incomplete photos of the device, which appears to be a Boeing-made ScanEagle long-range unmanned aerial vehicle.
It also says it "extracted the drone's information," allowing Tehran to see the intelligence the U.S. was gathering, and infer what elements within Iran the U.S. monitors.
"It's garbage to claim you can extract the drone's electronic information," says Kevin Kochersberger, a research associate professor at Virginia Tech's Unmanned Systems Laboratory. "There are multiple levels of hardware and software-specific design that are impenetrable to reverse engineering."
A credible hacking job would also require knowledge of the ground system that controls the unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, he says, as well as an understanding of the vehicle itself.
"There are so many design-specific characteristics in the vehicle that the information cannot be extracted by somebody casually examining the vehicle," says Kochersberger. "Therefore it can't really be hacked very easily."
The photos Iran released hide the lower nose portion of the vehicle, where all the sensitive intelligence-gathering software is housed. Experts believe this is likely because that section was severely damaged on the craft. This incident comes almost exactly a month after two Iranian fighter jets fired on a U.S. Predator drone flying over international waters in the Persian Gulf.
The American military says it has not lost any unmanned vehicles.
"The U.S. Navy has fully accounted for all unmanned air vehicles operating in the Middle East region," a spokesman for U.S. Naval Forces Central Command in Bahrain told Reuters. "Our operations in the Gulf are confined to internationally recognized water and air space."
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Tuesday there were no missing drones,
"We have no indication that the Iranian claims are true," he said.
"The powerful controlling of the U.S. drone is one of the signs of Iran's progress in protecting its airspace," says Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehman-Parast, according to Iranian state-sponsored Fars News Agency.
"Iran's surprise, prompt and highly efficient action to shoo away the U.S. drone away from the country's airspace indicates the (Iranian) Armed Forces' vigilance and defense preparedness for protecting and preserving the country," says Mohammad Saleh Jokar, a member of the Iranian parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Commission on Monday.
It is not impossible that Iran could have seized control of the UAV.
A team at the University of Texas at Austin was able to take over a U.S. government drone, on a dare from the Department of Homeland Security, reports Popular Science. For $1,000, they employed a technique called spoofing, where a hacker sends a signal that is the same as the drones' GPS.
Iran also claims it took control of the RQ-170 that the U.S. government said crashed there in 2011.
But Kochersberger doesn't believe that's a possibility in this case, adding those techniques are likely beyond the capabilities of the Iranian government barring an "extreme situation of a lot of things going wrong at the same time."
Drones and Iran have likely made headlines in recent years largely due to Tehran's propaganda efforts, not lapses by the U.S. military and intelligence circles, he says.
"[Drones] seem to be a hot topic right now. Maybe Iran is picking up on that," says Kochersberger. "They see some sensitivity in the American public to drones, and possibly consider this another irritant to bring it up."