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Newsnight Thursday, 13 June, 2002, 00:28 GMT 01:28 UK
Enthusiast watches Nato spy pictures
Mark Urban

Nato surveillance flights in the Balkans are beaming their pictures over an insecure satellite link - and anyone can tune in and watch their operations live.

The discovery was made last November by John Locker, a satellite enthusiast in north west England.

Satellite enthusiast John Locker
John Locker tried to alert the US military
He told Newsnight that he spent months e-mailing and faxing US and other Allied military officers to warn them of the dangers before finally deciding to go public.

Our investigation produced responses from Nato and American spokesmen that the pictures were unclassified. They said they would reveal nothing of value to a potential enemy.

One officer even told me that the broadcasts contained no information about the position or types of aircraft conducting the surveillance missions.

Watch and learn

Having reviewed many hours of pictures from recent operations, I can say this is quite wrong.

Satellite image
The images contain a wealth of information
The symbols around the edge of the pictures show the aircrafts' position, altitude and heading. Omitting this information would make the broadcasts useless to Nato intelligence analysts.

What's more, regular watching of the satellite channels allows you to learn much about the technical capabilities of sophisticated spy planes like the P-3 Orion and unmanned drones such as the Hunter.

During broadcasts by these aircraft, the letters 'P-3' or 'Hunt' are helpfully included on the bottom of the picture.

I have seen some of these aircraft operating during my reporting from Balkan trouble spots, and would have assumed that the presence of aerial surveillance was usually revealed by the sound of an aircraft or drone overhead.

Reviewing the Nato footage, it is apparent though that planes like the P-3 can track a target from up to 20 miles away, through cloud, at night.

Why is this secret trap door open ? Since official spokesmen will not even concede there is a problem, it is hard to get them to discuss how it might have occurred.

New priority

Instead contacts suggest that the timing of the unencrypted pictures' first appearance, 11 November 2001 is significant.

America's response to the 11th September terrorist attacks was gearing up, and surveillance of Afghanistan began soaking up all the available military secure satellite channels.

The US military have not introduced encoding even of the type used by commercial broadcasters

Mark Urban
Shunting the Balkan operations onto an insecure transmission was a matter of priorities, say analysts. The problem is, that doing so endangers a whole host of Nato operations ranging from hunting for Radovan Karadzic to stopping Albanian guerrillas infiltrating into Macedonia.

It is surprising though that in all the months since John Locker started warning people that the signals could be pulled down by anyone using amateur equipment, the US military have not introduced encoding even of the type used by commercial broadcasters.

The military procurement bureaucracy apparently cannot come up with a set top decoding box quickly enough.

Who might be watching these transmissions, apart from retirees like Mr Locker ? Last month Nato raided two Bosnian Serb military installations, saying they were eavesdropping of the alliance's signals.

Those able to monitor the transmissions around the clock - like a military intelligence department or guerrilla group - will learn much from them.

At the very least the broadcasts allow a Karadzic or a smuggler to check before they step outside their front door whether any Nato surveillance aircraft are in the sky and what they are doing.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Mark Urban
"A serious threat to Nato continues"
See also:

09 Mar 00 | Europe
09 Mar 00 | Politics
23 Oct 01 | Americas
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