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Hackers Briefly Controlled US Government Satellites 261

Posted by timothy
from the this-is-the-part-they're-telling-us-about dept.
Orome1 writes "Two U.S. satellites have been tampered with by hackers — possibly Chinese ones — in 2007 and 2008, claims a soon-to-be released report by the the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. The two satellites, Landsat-7 and Terra AM-1, had been interfered with on four separate occasions, allowing the attackers to be in command of the satellites for two to over twelve minutes each time. Luckily, both of the satellites are used only for observing the Earth's climate and terrain, and the hackers never actually misused their control over them in any way."
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Hackers Briefly Controlled US Government Satellites

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  • Pardon me, but (Score:5, Insightful)

    by chispito (1870390) on Thursday October 27, 2011 @01:46PM (#37858632)

    the hackers never actually misused their control over them in any way

    Can we agree that that hacking into a satellite is, by definition, misuse? That there is no proper use in this scenario?

    • by alphatel (1450715) *
      Whenever I hack into a US observational satellite I get bored because you can't do anything cool with them. I did get a nice picture of Emily Blunt naked on Mount Everest though.
      • As soon as the spy satellite images are good enough to resolve pubic hairs, the Chinese hackers will be all over them.

        When that happens, nude sunbathing in the decadent West might just cripple the Chinese military effort... So do your duty, girls!

        • by Pope (17780)

          You're assuming the decadent Western nude sunbathers still have their pubic hairs intact.

        • by eharvill (991859)

          As soon as the spy satellite images are good enough to resolve pubic hairs, the Chinese hackers will be all over them.

          You don't think the government satellites don't have that type of imagery yet? Google Earth scares the shit out of me b/c I cannot imagine WTF the government has with their technology.

          • by AliasMarlowe (1042386) on Thursday October 27, 2011 @04:25PM (#37860934) Journal

            You don't think the government satellites don't have that type of imagery yet?

            Nope. Do the math [wikimedia.org], the resolving power dR of an optically perfect instrument of diameter D and focal length L using light of wavelength W at working distance equal to focal length is given by:
            dR=1.22 W L/D
            So for a really thick pube of diameter 0.1mm, using blue light of wavelength 0.0004mm, the L/D must not exceed 204. For low orbit, L is at least 50 kilometers, which suggests D must be at least 250 meters. The larger spy satellites have imperfect mirrors of only 2 or 3 meters, so good luck with scaling their diameters up by two orders of magnitude (i.e. 4 orders of magnitude in area for a simple scaling).

            Google Earth scares the shit out of me b/c I cannot imagine WTF the government has with their technology.

            You're probably thinking of the aerial photography by USGS and others. Not satellite imagery. It's good, but more than an order of magnitude away from resolving a pube, however.

    • no, anything is possible. I mean, sure in this case the satellites were being used for innocuous purposes (weather observation), but suppose they were being used to spy on someone prior to assasination, or something like that. Would it be unethical to hack into a satellite to prevent an evil act from taking place?
      • by ajs (35943)

        That's still misuse. You might be entirely justified in your actions, but it's other than the intended use. From the point of view of Chinese hackers (I'm suspicious of always attributing these attacks to the Chinese...) what they're doing is a patriotic act, but it's no less misuse.

  • Just testing ... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by perpenso (1613749) on Thursday October 27, 2011 @01:46PM (#37858650)

    hackers never actually misused their control over them in any way

    So they are at an early testing stage. That is not overly reassuring.

  • Not this time: (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Oswald McWeany (2428506) on Thursday October 27, 2011 @01:48PM (#37858668)

    the hackers never actually misused their control over them in any way

    No... they were just trying out a proof-of-concept. Now they know how to take over the satelites though- the Chinese will have us in their grasp if we ever go to war... ... think about it- next time we consider going to war with China- they will take over our satellites and force us to watch Chinese Opera on our TV sets. ... our surrender will be so quick the French will call US surrender monkeys.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Dunbal (464142) *

      our surrender will be so quick the French will call US surrender monkeys.

      Sigh. I guess you've never been to Paris, huh? What is the name of that place, ahh yes, Place Charles de Gaulle, there's a big monument there. They call it the arch something. The arch of surrender I think. It symbolizes all the times the French have run away, and all the battles they have lost, around the entire globe, right? Why do they still speak French from the Caribbean, across Africa, to Indo-China, I wonder?

      As for "Case Yellow", I doubt very much that the US would have fared much better had it had

      • by Baloroth (2370816)

        Please list the wars won by America since 1946.

        Are you sure? It's a pretty long [wikipedia.org] list. Just off the top of my head? Korea. Defense of Taiwan. First (depends on how you count it, Second too) Gulf war. Afghan war (by proxy) against the Soviets. Afghan war (not by proxy)... again, depends on how you define "won". And, of course, dozens of minor military operations (SEAL Team-6 against Osama, would be one example.)

        Oh yeah, and while it wasn't technically a "war", there was the little incident with the USSR. What was that called again? The Frozen... no, Cold

        • by Dunbal (464142) *

          Korea? You won the war with the two countries that are technically still at war? Lol. Gulf war? Yeah, the coalition won that.

          Depends how you define won? Ah ok. Well if you define "won" as "not won" or "almost won" or "won" then yeah, the US has won every single war it has been in. I won't bother, the rest of your post is a mine-field.

          • by khallow (566160)

            Korea? You won the war with the two countries that are technically still at war?

            Yep. Wars don't always end with the losers going away.

            • We beat the North Koreans soundly. We tied with the Chinese reinforcements supplied with Russian hardware because we didn't want to turn the proxy fight into a full blown world war.
          • by Zancarius (414244)

            Korea? You won the war with the two countries that are technically still at war? Lol. Gulf war? Yeah, the coalition won that.

            The Korean War was a proxy war with the Soviet Union and ended with an armistice very shortly following the death of Stalin, likely because the North Koreans were then uncertain about the stability of their war supplies. While it technically wasn't a win for either side, there are reasons why the US was hesitant to engage in exceptional force since this occurred fairly early on in the

        • by chrb (1083577)

          Please list the wars won by America since 1946.

          Are you sure? It's a pretty long [wikipedia.org] list.

          That is a list of "military operations". Military operations are not the same thing as a "war" [wikipedia.org]. If you want a list of wars, grep for "war" in this list [wikipedia.org]. Also note that "war" has a legally recognised status in international law. A war ends when one side is defeated, one side surrenders, or both sides sign a peace treaty. [wikipedia.org] None of those apply to North Korea.

      • by ajs (35943)

        Sigh. I guess you've never been to Paris, huh? What is the name of that place, ahh yes, Place Charles de Gaulle, there's a big monument there. They call it the arch something. The arch of surrender I think. It symbolizes all the times the French have run away, and all the battles they have lost, around the entire globe, right? Why do they still speak French from the Caribbean, across Africa, to Indo-China, I wonder?

        Still, it can't help that they're cheese-eating surrender monkeys [wikipedia.org].

        Get over it. It's a Simpsons reference. I promise not to jump all over you when you claim you can create a time machine by sticking a fork in a toaster.

      • by sdguero (1112795)
        How many enemy combatants have been slain by French military since 1946?
        Tens of thousands. And that's counting the mess we inherited at Dien Bien Phu.

        What about by Americans?
        Several million.

        Arguing that the France's military (or any single nation's military) is anywhere near a match for the United States' since 1949 is absurd. Based on 2010 numbers, the US Armed forces had 3x more troops and 10x the budget of France. Just because we speak English in the United States doesn't mean England has milit
        • by Arlet (29997)

          I think the French were just smarter to stay out of Iraq. How much did that cost the US so far ? And for no good reason at all.

        • by Zancarius (414244)

          So what I'm getting at is Americans have seen France as a pushover, military-wise, since WWII and that isn't likely to change as long as the United States has the world's strongest (and most active) military and is running all over the planet killing people in the name of democracy and freedom. Taking offense to a little quip like the parent posted just shows how sensitive the pro-French crowd is. Perhaps you see the truth in the jest and that's why it stings so much...

          I think the offense-taking is endemic

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        The French have not won a major war in nearly 300 years in which the United States was not their ally. French-Indian / Seven Years War - lost; Napoleon - kicked major ass and wreaked havoc for years and still lost; Franco-Prussian War - lost; Algeria - lost; Vietnam - lost before the US made the same mistake. We don't even need to mention WWII, the collapse of the Republic, and the whole Vichy collaborationist thing. What's that you say? The French made a major contribution towards the American War of I
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Big Smirk (692056)

        Ah yes, Charles de Gaulle. When he got France out of NATO, and told US President Johnson that he wanted all US troops out of France, Johnson ask "Does that include the ones buried there?"

        French view of history seems to be very myopic.

    • by Moby Cock (771358)

      Proof-of-concept? I think not. This was an actual intrusion. The two satellites are both controlled by the same base station -- there is no real 'concept' to prove.

    • by CRCulver (715279)

      they will take over our satellites and force us to watch Chinese Opera on our TV sets.

      Chinese opera's popularity is now quite miniscule among the Chinese. It would be like saying that an antagonistic Britain would force morris dancing on a subjugated population.

    • by Jeian (409916)

      FWIW, Landsat and Terra AM are operated by civilian agencies (NASA/NOAA/USGS), not by the military.

  • Since anything wireless can only tell if the information it's receiving is what it should be to grant control, shouldn't we implement something like a geometric constraint such that a satellite will only accept commands if coming from a particular location on the planet?

    Yes, this would still be possible to fake, but it should be significantly more difficult since it relies not only on information but also location.

    • Would not have helped.

      FTFA:

      Since the satellites are controlled from the Svalbard Satellite Station in Norway which often uses the Internet to transfer and access files, it is deemed highly likely that the hackers have managed to insinuate themselves into the station's system through its Internet connection.

      In other words, they were doing it wrong.

      • by DaHat (247651)

        Um... unless something has changed, Landsat 7 [wikipedia.org] is controlled from EROS [usgs.gov] which is outside of Sioux Falls, SD.

        • by Remus Shepherd (32833) <remus@panix.com> on Thursday October 27, 2011 @03:53PM (#37860498) Homepage

          I work on the Landsat project.

          Yes, Landsat 7 is controlled from Sioux Falls. But every downlink station (and we have over a dozen of them, including one in China [usgs.gov]) has the ability to communicate with the satellite to trigger a download of recorded imagery. I assume that's all the hackers did, which means all they would be able to do is wipe some imagery out of the archive. That's a hair-raising scenario for us but not significant for most people.

          Only EROS has the ability to upload flight commands to the satellite. That's not to say that Svalbard couldn't, they just don't have the software and one would hope they don't have the documentation needed to form the command syntax. But if they had those things and a hacker took control of them, they could burn the satellite into the atmosphere or send it careening around in its orbital neighborhood. Chances of it hitting another satellite and breaking into a million disaster-causing pieces are minor but not zero.

          This is a scary news story for us. I'm interested in seeing the full report when it's finally released.

    • by X0563511 (793323)

      Not possible, unless your receiver is also directional (or you have three of them suitably far apart)

      • by AJH16 (940784)

        Actually, that isn't true either. If you took 3 different directional transmitters and sent the signal to the 3 different receivers with proper delays you could make it think your signal was originating anywhere you wanted to.

        • by X0563511 (793323)

          Hmm, very good point. Though doing this properly might be "difficult" (to put it lightly)

  • I wonder... (Score:2, Funny)

    by Haedrian (1676506)

    With all these satellites falling out from the sky lately...

  • Nimbus (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 27, 2011 @01:50PM (#37858712)

    When GE built Nimbus (an early weather satellite) my grandfather was one of the engineers. He had security clearance high enough that it got him out of the draft and an armed guard was required when he went to the dentist (to shoot him should he start saying the wrong things under the gas). As he put it: "there's no way it's just looking at the clouds".

    • Someone out to up this comment even though it may have a little BS thrown in but I doubt those satellites were just looking at the weather. You know our military relies on that stuff and the Chinese definitely have the ability to disable or jam GPS. Well we have a solution for that. Our guided missiles with thermonuclear warheads use inertial navigation. Some of these will work no matter what.

      The real threat to us is some terrorist driving into DC with a van with a simple uranium gun type device and parking

  • debts absolved!
    All Imports from china now have at 200% tariff

    economy... FIXED!

    • by subl33t (739983)

      Wal*Mart loses access to most of it's stock, America devolves into chaos.

      • Wal*Mart loses access to most of it's stock

        - that would be ... interesting. Good basis for a movie! Don't know if the SF or the comedy approach would be better though.

  • I see what you mean, but "only for observing the Earth's climate" rings a worrisome bell if we will have to trust the data.

    Yes, there might well have been a more belligerent outcome...

    Yet, tampering with climate data satellites is bad enough, considering the financial implications surrounding it. BTW, does Ron Paul have any hacking skillz?

  • I hacked a satellite once- Toshiba isn't very good on security.

  • This is how it began, self aware computers, etc.

  • How is this different than the hacking that Steve Jobs did? Communications hacking is communications hacking, no?

  • Don't run satellite data traffic through the internet and constantly background check those that have assess to these systems.

  • When I last worked around a satellite groundstation (Space Imaging's IKONOS) 10 years ago, the satellite control systems were damn sure not connected to the internet. Communications were encrypted and reasonable physical security measures were in place too.

    Why the Hell would you connect something critical like satellite control or a nuclear reactor control system to the Internet?

    This defies logic.

    Necron69
     

    • According to TFA, they did exactly that. Whether that is actually what happened is an open conjecture (as usual, TFA was pretty weak).

      Ten years is a long time. Stupid can happen pretty quickly.

  • by FunkyELF (609131) on Thursday October 27, 2011 @02:17PM (#37859084)

    Does that mean 12 and some change? If it was 13.5 minutes they would have said over 13?

    Its like saying "My daughter took top 17 in the beauty pageant."... it means she got exactly 17th.

  • When China freely admits that it was them who took out the NE US power grid in 2003 just to see if they could (race condition, indeed), you have to wonder what they're doing that they don't tell us about. Several experts debunked that theory, but they're openly publishing papers like this: http://standeyo.com/NEWS/10_Sci_Tech/100323.CH.US.Power.Grid.pdf [standeyo.com]. I dunno. The Chinese think we're pretty laughable. I wouldn't put anything past them.
    • by Lumpy (12016)

      "The Chinese think we're pretty laughable."

      and we are. we have Retarded executives making infrastructure decisions that dont even have the IQ or education to decide how to make coffee. WE have Critical SCADA systems on public networks, we have stupid design decisions driven by managers, Security catering to users that think passwords are "hard".. etc....

      We are pretty darn laughable.

  • Maybe they were just big fans of Dweezil Zappa in that 1980's classic The Running Man?

  • So the hacked satellite was only mapping climate and terrain. You know if I were an evil genius this is exactly what I would want to hack in order to to hide my secret volcano lair. And I use the word "if" ironically.

  • This should not happen on a high risk/high potential system. If it does, either your security team, or policy enforcer/makers, need to be replaced. Period.

  • Gotta have something on the table to scare the people with. They're not believing the terrorist tales any more.

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