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Home » Hacking News » Critical US satellites could be hacked

Critical US satellites could be hacked

by Nikola Strahija on October 12th, 2002 Commercial satellites used by the US military, secret service and Federal Aviation Authority could be hijacked or disabled by computer hackers, a new government report has warned.


The satellites are typically used for lower classification communications, as well as tracking and telemetry.

The report was produced by the US General Accounting Office, an investigative governmental body, and states that the command channels used to control these commercial satellites are insufficiently protected against misuse.

"Commercial satellite providers generally do not use the more stringent techniques used in national security satellites for protection against deliberate disruption and exploitation," the report says. "If false commands could be inserted into a satellite's command receiver, they could cause the spacecraft to destroy itself."

The study says some of the commands sent to commercial satellites are not encrypted and that the encryption that is used may be weaker than that employed by the military. Other security measures, such as user ID's passwords are also less stringently enforced, according to the report.

According to the US Department of Defense, 45 per cent of all communications between the US and the Persian Gulf during the 1991 Gulf war was conducted through commercial satellite systems.


NATO TV


John Locker, a freelance satellite security consultant in the UK, told New Scientist: "The problem has always been there with commercial satellites. And unless the operators are prepared to put some money it, as far as I can see, it always will be." He thinks the new report may actually underestimate the ease with which satellite signals could be jammed.

In June 2002, Locker discovered that NATO video broadcasts from the Balkans could be accessed using commercial satellite television equipment. The signal came from a commercial satellite used by NATO called Telstar II.

Max Meerman, principle engineer with the UK's Surrey Satellites, says it would take a determined attacker to hijack even a commercial satellite. But he says it might be possible to use broadcasting equipment that could mimic a legitimate command signal or hack into a command centre's computer systems on the ground.

Meerman told New Scientist: "Over the years there has been more and more reliance on buying time on commercial satellites for military communications. And the cheapest satellites are typically the older ones with a different idea about security."

Viral load


The GAO report is dated 30 August, but was not released until 3 October and has received little publicity. It states that the security of commercial satellites has been completely ignored in the US government's recent assessment of potentially vulnerable critical infrastructure.

The report notes that certain security measures, such as the strong signal used to upload commands to commercial satellites, should make attack more difficult.

But it also warns that specially designed computer viruses could be used to wreak havoc on a satellite's control system. "Malicious software (such as computer viruses) can be used to manipulate network protocols, deny data or service, destroy data or software, and corrupt, modify, or compromise data," the report says.


Will Knight

- aricle available from www.newscientist.com -


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