Researchers use decommissioned satellite to broadcast Hacker TV

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independent researchers and the armed forces of the United States became more and more focused on orbiting satellites potential security vulnerabilities in recent years. These devices, which are built with durability, reliability, and longevity in mind, were basically never intended to be ultra-safe. But at the ShmooCon security conference in Washington, D.C. on Friday, embedded device security researcher Carl Kosher raised questions about a different phase of a satellite’s life cycle: what happens when an old satellite is decommissioned and transitions to “graveyard orbit“?

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Kosher and his colleagues last year received permission to access and broadcast from a Canadian satellite known as Anik F1R, launched to support Canadian broadcasters in 2005 and expected to last 15 years. The satellite coverage area extends from the southern border of the United States to the Hawaiian Islands and the easternmost part of Russia. The satellite will soon move into its graveyard orbit, and almost all other services that use it have already switched to the new satellite. But while researchers were still able to communicate with the satellite using special access to an uplink license and transponder slot lease, Kosher had the ability to take control and broadcast in the northern hemisphere.


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“My favorite thing was to see how it works!” Kosher tells WIRED. “It’s not realistic to go from creating a video stream to broadcasting it across North America.”

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Kosher and colleagues from Shadytel’s telecommunications and embedded hacking group broadcast live from another security conference, ToorCon San Diego, in October. Last week at ShmooCon, he talked about the tools they used to turn an unidentified commercial uplink facility (a station with a dedicated satellite-powered antenna) into a satellite broadcast command center.

In this case, the researchers had permission to access both the uplink and the satellite, but the experiment highlights an interesting gray area when the unused satellite is not in use, but has not yet moved further away from Earth into its last resting 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 to Earth,” explains Kosher. “People are going to need a big cymbal, a powerful amp and the knowledge of what they are doing. And if the satellite were to be fully exploited, they would need to overwhelm anyone using that particular repeater location or frequency.”

In other words, the voice of the one who shouts the loudest into the (geosynchronous orbital) microphone will be amplified the most, but it is difficult to surpass the established broadcast giants, although not unprecedented. For example, in 1986, a hacker who called himself Captain Midnight hit the airwaves on HBO from Falcon and Snowman intercepting the signal of the Galaxy 1 satellite.

More recently, hackers have taken advantage of underused satellites for their own purposes. In 2009, the Brazilian Federal Police arrested 39 suspects on suspicion of capture of US Navy satellites use of powerful antennas and other special equipment for own short-range radio communication CB (civilian band).

In addition to independent hackers, Kosher notes that the lack of authentication and control over satellites could allow countries to take over each other’s equipment. “One of the implications is that states that want to broadcast propaganda can do so without launching their own satellite, they can use another satellite if they have ground equipment,” he says.

Ang Tsui, an embedded security researcher who launched the open-source NyanSat ground station project in 2020, notes that decommissioned satellites are not the only ones that could be hijacked. “You can even capture new satellites,” he says. But thinking of those who are at the end of life stage, he adds, “There are definitely things that just hang there.”

One of Kosher’s colleagues, Falcon, points out that in terms of pluralism and freedom of information, satellite uplink opportunities could be reimagined as abundant and accessible rather than exclusive and scarce. “What if it was just a universal utility,” says Falcon, looking off into the distance.

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