Sabotaging a decommissioned satellite is easier than you think

Sabotaging a decommissioned satellite is easier than you think

In recent years, independent researchers and the US military have been focusing more and more on the potential security vulnerabilities of orbiting satellites. These devices, designed with a focus on aspects such as durability, reliability and longevity, were never meant to be particularly safe. But at last week's ShmooCon security conference in Washington, embedded device security researcher Karl Koscher raised questions about a different stage in a satellite's life cycle: what happens when an old satellite is dismantled and ends up in the so-called "graveyard orbit"?

The experiment Last year Koscher and his colleagues got permission to access and broadcast from a Canadian satellite known as Anik F1R, launched in 2005 to support Canadian broadcasters and designed for use for fifteen years. The satellite's coverage extends beyond the southern border of the United States, reaching as far as Hawaii and the easternmost part of Russia. The satellite will soon enter cemetery orbit, and almost all of the other services that relied on it have already migrated to a new satellite. But while researchers were still able to communicate with the satellite thanks to special access to an uplink license and renting a transponder slot, Koscher used the opportunity to take over and broadcast in the Northern Hemisphere. .

WiredLeaks, how to send us an anonymous report "The best thing was seeing it work - Koscher tells US - Going from creating a video stream to broadcasting it across North America is a feeling a little unreal ".

In October Koscher and his colleagues at Shadytel - a telecommunications and embedded device hacking group - broadcast a livestream from another security conference, ToorCon in San Diego. At last week's ShmooCon, Koscher explained the tools he and his colleagues used to transform an unidentified commercial uplink facility (a station equipped with a special dish capable of communicating with satellites) into a command center for satellite transmission.

In this case, the researchers had permission to access both the uplink facility and the satellite, but their experiment highlights the interesting gray zone that occurs when a decommissioned satellite does not is no longer used but has not yet moved away from the Earth into its final orbit.

"Technically, no checks are performed on this satellite or on most satellites. If you can generate a signal strong enough to reach the satellite, this will then send it back down to Earth - explains Koscher -. It would take a large dish and a powerful amplifier, in addition to knowing what you He's doing. And if the satellite were in full operation, it would be necessary to overwhelm whoever is using that particular point or frequency of the transponder. "

Previous and possible risks In other words, whoever yells louder into a microphone (in the geosynchronous orbit) would be able to amplify his voice to the maximum. And even if overwhelming the big broadcasters is not a simple thing, there are precedents. In 1986, for example, a hacker who called himself Captain Midnight managed to interrupt the transmission of the movie The game of the hawk on the US broadcaster Hbo hijacking the signal from the Galaxy 1 satellite

In more recent times, cybercriminals have exploited little-used satellites for their purposes In 2009, the Brazilian federal police arrested 39 people suspected of sabotaging US Navy satellites, using high-powered antennas and other ad hoc equipment for CB radio communications (ban from town) within a short distance.

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Arrow Koscher points out that a lack of authentication systems and controls could allow one country to sabotage another nation's satellites. "One of the implications is that states that want to broadcast their propaganda could do so without launching their own satellite but using another if they have the ground equipment," explains Koscher.

Ang Cui, a researcher who deals with the security of embedded devices and that in 2020 launched the NyanSat open source ground station project, stresses that decommissioned satellites are not the only ones that could be sabotaged: "It would be possible to take control of even the most recent satellites", He says. But thinking of satellites at the end of their lifecycle, Cui adds: "There are definitely satellites that just stay up there."

One of Koscher's colleagues, Falcon, notes that from a pluralistic and freedom of information satellite uplink capabilities could be rethought to be more widely available. "Maybe they could become a universal public service," says Falcon looking into the distance.

This article originally appeared on US.

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