Many hackers love breaking into computers and servers all around the world. These attacks are terrifying, but exciting at the same time. But it becomes really more impressive when hackers do their stuff in sensitive places. In late September 2014, a US weather system was hacked during a short period. Classic, isn’t it ? Actually, it was a full satellite network that was hacked for two full days.
The NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) provides public weather information to many crucial US actors (disaster planning or aviation for instance). During this unexpected hack, all this information was unavailable. The security breach wasn’t announced immediately, but one month after the facts ; indeed, the NOAA firstly said it was an “unscheduled maintenance”.
The agency doesn’t know exactly who attacked it, and why. However – and probably because they are American – ; security experts said it was some Chinese people, or even Chinese intelligence agencies. Obviously, Chinese officials have denied those “unfounded accusations”.
With this case, NOAA realized that their security systems were really poor, and that’s the good point. The bad point now : it seems that hackers are able to control satellites and every piece of information they are sending. Is it true ? How could a satellite be hacked ? Let’s check that.
There are probably several ways to “hack” a satellite, and several degrees of gravity. Satellites are relayers, for the most part. It means that one can (relatively easily) use this space relay to send radio communications in a large geographic area. The hacker only needs some software to analyze the satellite spectrum, and a powerful emitter to create an “uplink” to the satellite. Most space relays are not overloaded, so it is possible to create a pirate transmission discreetly. Indeed, satellites don’t check signal content, they just deploy it to a specific earth area. However, it’s also possible to disturb “legal” signals relayed by the system. In that case, it’s just a kind of “Denial of Service” attack, well known to security engineers.
But there are other ways to disturb a satellite. Usually, their owners have access to a special communication channel to communicate with the satellite. Of course, this channel is encrypted. However, security means money. And the less money you spend , the weaker your system. So, any rather well-trained hacker could end up communicating with the satellite. In addition to possible information hacking, it means that pirates equipped with an efficient computer would be able to handle satellite’s movements, wherever, whenever: actually, it would be easy to destroy a satellite by draining all its fuel into space. Then, it would drift or just crash into earth’s atmosphere.
That’s why radio communications are actively monitored by governments. You cannot do wathever you want with a dish, because it could have disastrous consequences… But don’t be afraid: the sky is not going to fall on our heads!