Hijacking satellites is easy than you think

Hijacking satellites is easy than you think

Hacking a satellite to send out a nationwide broadcast may sound like something out of a spy thriller, but it’s actually something you can do in your spare time. The equipment you need is relatively inexpensive and easy to find; all you need is access to an uplink station. For less than the price of a Meta Quest 2, you can hijack a disused satellite and relay your demands to the world’s governments.

At this year’s annual DefCon hacker convention, Karl Koscher – a member of the white hat hacking group ShadyTel – managed to hack into a disused Canadian broadcast satellite. He used it to broadcast a variety of content, which included talks from last year’s ToorCon (a San Diego-based hacking conference) and a number of hacking-themed movies (e.g. “WarGames”). If he wanted, Koscher could also have broadcast his voice over the satellite by tying it into a phone conference bridge.

The hacker, who wished to remain anonymous, spoke to Motherboard about what drove him to hijack the satellite. “We had an opportunity to use a satellite that was being decommissioned. We also had the ability to put our own content on there,” Koscher said. It’s legal to both perform the hack and transmit the broadcast, as long as you have the right know-how and equipment. By exploiting security flaws in the satellite, anyone can do it—it’s not as complicated as it might seem. Even though the motives of the hackers targeting satellites may not always be ethical, these security issues still exist.

You can legally hack a satellite

Hacking, despite popular belief, is actually a broad topic that includes many different aspects. Despite what stock photos of people hunched over in hoodies may have led you to believe, there is actually a very large and thriving community of ethical hackers. Ethical hackers probe for holes in software in an attempt to find potential exploits and then inform the developer about them before any malicious individuals can take advantage of the situation. Some ethical hackers do it for fun, either working privately, in small groups, or attending public hackathons. Some people make a living by hacking into software and finding vulnerabilities. Big tech companies, like Google, often offer large bounties to hackers who can find cracks in their software. However, there is also illegal hacking, which can make you a lot of money, but if you get caught, you could go to federal prison for a long time.

Even though satellites are decommissioned, they are still property of someone. If the owner finds out that you’ve hacked into their satellite, you can get into legal trouble. There is a whole set of regulations that come along with satellite use and operation. So, if the satellite’s owner doesn’t care, you can still get into trouble with the FCC.

The hack that Koscher pulled off was completely legal. He first acquired a lease for the satellite’s transponder, which is the part of the satellite that manages what information is being sent and received. Koscher also got a license so he could use an abandoned uplink station for the task without getting in trouble with the law. If you want to hijack a satellite legally, there will be some paperwork and fees involved. But once that’s taken care of, things may actually get simpler.

How do you hack into something orbiting Earth?

Satellite hacking

When it comes to the actual hacking part, the first thing you’ll need is an uplink station, which sends signals out to satellites in the first place. According to Tech Target, uplink stations can be rented out by TV stations. Koscher acquired a license and then used an abandoned uplink station for his hack, which is presumably the cheaper option. You can also build your own uplink station, though it is probably a lot more complex than a simple arts and crafts project. After your uplink station is set up, you just need one more piece of equipment to complete your satellite hacking setup – a Hack RF. This piece of hardware contains all the software you need to get into the satellite itself, and it only costs $300. With aHack RF, you’ll be able to access any satellite you want!

According to Koscher, security around satellites is practically nonexistent, making them easy to hijack given the right tools. He explains that “satellites basically just reflect whatever signal is sent up to them,” meaning anyone with a strong enough signal can takeover. Without any authentication measures in place, “if you’re loud enough,” you can override whoever is currently using the transponder.

Koscher’s option involved targeting an unused satellite that was making its way toward its final resting place. As NASA explains, the satellites that are too big to burn up on reentry are either crashed into the Pacific Ocean or simply sent too far away to bother anyone. The former CBC satellite was at the end of its life and no longer being used, so the hackers didn’t need a particularly strong signal to get a result. However, it is possible to hijack an active satellite.

This isn’t the first satellite to get hacked

Satellites have been hacked in the past, and the people responsible usually don’t go through the legalities first. For example, back in the 1980s, HBO viewers who were planning to watch TV for the evening were instead treated to a message from Captain Midnight, a hacker who had taken over the broadcast. According to The New York Times, in place of “The Falcon and the Snowman” was a message printed on the channel’s test card that read: “Good evening HBO from Captain Midnight. $12.95 a month? No way! (Showtime-Movie Channel beware.)”

HBO’s east coast broadcasts were interrupted by the Captain Midnight hack, and David Pritchard, HBO’s Vice President at the time, made claims that his company had been threatened with sabotage in the months leading up to the incident. Pritchard also described the hack as ”a criminal, willful interference of a government-licensed satellite broadcast.” Captain Midnight was eventually caught and unmasked as John MacDougall, an electrical engineer and satellite dish-based business owner who was upset about HBO adding a monthly fee for its services. McDougall pled guilty to a misdemeanor and was fined $5,000 for the stunt (via Network World).

The problem could be even worse than a movie getting interrupted for five minutes. Congress is concerned about the dangers posed by satellite hackers, as they could interrupt communications, or even worse, cause two satellites to hit one another or collide with the International Space Station. The U.S. government has expressed concern about rival nations like China directly targeting its government and military satellites.

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