Independent researchers and the US military have become increasingly focused on satellites in orbit potential safety deficiencies In recent years. These devices, which are primarily built with durability, reliability and longevity in mind, were largely never intended to be ultra-safe. But at the ShmooCon security conference in Washington, DC, last Friday, security researcher Karl Koscher asked questions about another phase of a satellite’s life cycle: What happens when an old satellite is taken out of service and switched to a “cemetery track”?
Koscher and his colleagues received permission last year to access and transmission from a Canadian satellite known as the Anik F1R, launched to support Canadian transmitters in 2005 and designed for 15 years of use. The satellite’s coverage extends below the southern border of the United States and out to Hawaii and the easternmost part of Russia. The satellite will soon move to its cemetery orbit, and almost all other services that use it have already migrated to a new satellite. But while scientists were still able to talk to the satellite using special access to an uplink license and leasing of transponder castles, Koscher had the opportunity to take over and transmit to the northern hemisphere.
“My favorite thing was actually watching it work!” Koscher tells WIRED. “It’s a little unreal to go from making a video stream to broadcasting it across North America.”
Koscher and his colleagues from the Shadytel telecommunications and embedded device hacking group broadcast a livestream from another security conference, ToorCon San Diego, in October. At ShmooCon last week, he explained the tools they used to turn an unidentified commercial uplink facility (a station with a special electric matrix to communicate with satellites) into a command center for transmission from the satellite.
In this case, the researchers had permission to access both the uplink facility and the satellite, but the experiment highlights the interesting gray area when a decommissioned satellite is not used but has not yet moved Dad away from Earth to his final orbit.
“Technically, there are no controls on this satellite or most satellites – if you can generate a strong enough signal to get there, the satellite will send it back down to earth,” Koscher explains. “People would need a large bowl and a powerful amplifier and knowledge of what they were doing. And if a satellite was fully utilized, they would need to overpower anyone else who used that particular transponder point or frequency.”
In other words, the one who shouts at the top of a (geosynchronously orbiting) microphone will have his voice amplified the most, but it is difficult to overpower established broadcast giants – even if it is unparalleled. 1986, for example, a hacker who called himself Captain Midnight broke into an HBO broadcast of The Falcon and the Snowman by hijacking the Galaxy 1 satellite signal.
In recent times, hackers have exploited underutilized satellites for their own purposes. In 2009, the Brazilian federal police arrested 39 suspected suspects hijacking of US Navy satellites uses powerful antennas and other ad hoc equipment for its own CB (citizen band) short-range radio communication.
In addition to independent hackers, Koscher points out that the lack of authentication and controls on satellites can allow countries to hijack each other’s equipment. “One implication is that states that want to broadcast propaganda could do so without launching their own satellite; they could use another satellite if they have the ground equipment,” he says.
Ang Cui, a security researcher for embedded devices that launched the NyanSat open source ground station project 2020, states that decommissioned satellites are not the only ones that can be hijacked. “You could even take over new satellites,” he says. But when he thinks of those who are in the final stages of life, he adds: “There are definitely things that just hang up there.”
One of Koscher’s colleagues, Falcon, notes that from a pluralistic, freedom of information perspective, satellite uplink capabilities can be transformed into abundant and accessible rather than exclusive and scarce. “Imagine if this was just a universal tool,” says Falcon with a distant look.
This story originally appeared on wired.com.