Hacking satellite communications and possible implication

Pierluigi Paganini February 06, 2012

Once more to worry about is the real security of satellite infrastructures. In a technological civilization satellites play a vital role in the management and transmission of information of all kinds, satellites infact do the work in silent thet we enjoy every day, but often forget this crucial aspect. Are these powerful systems of communication actually safe? Is it sufficient to be in orbit thousands of miles above our heads to ward off all danger of attack? Using Satellite communication are we sure that nobody could listen our communication?
Of course not! The main concern is the possibility of compromising satellite communications, eventuality that in a context of warfare triggers many fears.

Consider that the satellite communication are wide used in military application and also in all those region where other communication infrastuctures are insufficient or absent like Middle East and Africa.

Security researchers have demonstrated that satellite phones can be easily intercepted and deciphered. You may be asking which powerful media have used the two academics, and the response is terrifying, because the two did not use any special equipment. It ‘s enough any common computer to hack the two encryption systems used to protect satellite phone signals, anyone with a computer and a radio could eavesdrop on calls,a moltitude of satellite phones are affected. With a few thousand dollars it is possible, according reseachers’s announcement, to buy equipment and software needed to intercept and decrypt satellite phone calls from hundreds of thousands of users.

The academics have summarized the concept in a single sentence
“Do not Trust Satellite Phones”
To have been compromised are the two main standard encryption algorithms known as GMR-1 and GMR-2 implemented by the nayb satellite phone operators. Actually problem effect only those companies that use the ETSI GMR-1 and GMR-2 encryption algorthms. The speed with which it is possible to decipher a call is linked to the computing power, but we keep in mind that is possible with a suitable equipment decipher the communication in real time.

The two researchers are convinced that the main problems related to the algorithms is the “security through obscurity” approach followed attempting to use secrecy of design or implementation to provide security and preventing the science communitity to test them. Publishing the hacking procedure the academics desire to prompt ETSI organization to sets the new standards based on stronger and public algorithms. It had happened in the past to GSM communications, an approach targeted to hide the algorithms used for encrypting communications is certainly wrong and represents a risk to the integrity of the overall infrastructure.

Due to this incorrect approach in the management of the algorithms many organisations have implemented extra layers of cipher software in their satellite phones with the result of increasing its vulnerability. Consequence of the announcement is that satellite handsets with built in encryption mechanisms based on the hacked algorithms are no longer secure, which could pose a considerable threat to business and military sectors. Hostile governments and also criminals will be able to monitor satellite phone networks on a large scale.

If the situation regarding satellite encryption algorithms is worrying certainly the security of satellites themselves is not better.

A report released in 2011 named titled the “2011 Report to Congress of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission” reveals that some US operated satellites are vulnerable to attacks and in more than one occasion attackers taken control of the systems, sensitive satellite systems have been successfully breached.

“Satellites from several U.S. government space programs utilize commercially operated satellite ground stations outside the United States, some of which rely on the public Internet for ‘data access and file transfers,’ according to a 2008 National Aeronautics and Space Administration quarterly report.† The use of the Internet to perform certain communications functions presents potential opportunities for malicious actors to gain access to restricted networks,” 

Information regarding several attacks to satellite control systems are of public domain , and these events have been confirmed also by The National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Below is a brief list of events:

  1. On October 20, 2007, Landsat-7, a U.S. earth observation satellite jointly managed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the U.S. Geological Survey, experienced 12 or more minutes of interference.
  2. On June 20, 2008, Terra EOS [earth observation system] AM–1, a National Aeronautics and Space Administration- managed program for earth observation, experienced two or more minutes of interference.The responsible party achieved all steps required to command the satellite but did not issue commands.
  3. On July 23, 2008, Landsat-7 experienced 12 or more minutes of interference. The responsible party did not achieve all steps required to command the satellite.
  4. On October 22, 2008, Terra EOS AM–1 experienced nine or more minutes of interference. The responsible party achieved all steps required to command the satellite but did not issue commands.

In the report the responsability of the attacks has been assigned to China but similar hack can be conducted by every hostile foreign government.
We must consider that compromising satellites is a serious risk, the expousure could affect communication in business and military sectors and also can causes the theft of sensible and strategic technological information.

My last consideration is related to threats to satellite systems. In our imagination we make the mistake of considering only as possible sources of attacks foreign governments. The proof that this view is wrong has arrived in recent weeks when the group Anonymous has announced that it has successfully hacked a NASA satellite, the group has also  published on Pastebin evidence of knowledge on NASA project.

Clearly the situation merits a high level of attention given the looming threat.

Pierluigi Paganini



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