Hackers targeted US government satellites, Congressional report claims

Filed Under: Vulnerability

SatelliteIt sounds like the stuff of James Bond - foreign hackers managing to gain unauthorised access to US satellites as they orbit 700 km above the Earth, and interfere with their controls.

Maybe, if things were turning really bad, the hackers could even "damage or destroy the satellite."

Well, if the upcoming annual report by the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission is to believed, maybe this isn't just the imagination of a Hollywood scriptwriter.

According to Bloomberg BusinessWeek, a Congressional commision report to be released next month will reveal that hacker interfered with the operations of two US government satellites in 2007 and 2008.

The hackers, who were said to have gained access to the satellites via a ground station in Spitsbergen, Norway, are said to have interfered with the running of the Landsat-7 and Terra AM-1 Earth observation satellites which examine the planet's climate and terrain. According to Bloomberg BusinessWeek, the report claims Landsat-7 experienced "12 or more minutes of interference in October 2007 and July 2008".

NASA's Terra AM-1 satellite, meanwhile, is said to have suffered interference for two minutes in June 2008 and nine minutes in October of that year. According to the draft report, "the responsible party achieved all steps required to command the satellite."

The draft report doesn't mince any words regarding how it perceives the seriousness of the hack:

"Such interference poses numerous potential threats, particularly if achieved against satellites with more sensitive functions.. Access to a satellite‘s controls could allow an attacker to damage or destroy the satellite. An attacker could also deny or degrade as well as forge or otherwise manipulate the satellite’s transmission."

Although the report falls short of directly accusing China of being behind the hack, it does say that the four satellite hacks are consistent with known Chinese military warplans to disable enemy satellite systems and "ground-based infrastructure, such as satellite control facilities."

But - as is normal - no compelling evidence is supplied to support the theory that China *was* responsible for the hack attack. And you have to ask yourself, what modern army *wouldn't* consider the benefit of knocking out an enemy's satellite systems if they could.

Equally, if the ground station in Norway was connected to the public internet as is claimed, isn't it also possible that a hacker in his back bedroom was messing around rather than probing on behalf of an enemy government? Unless more convincing evidence is found of who was behind the hack, we all remain in the dark.

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5 Responses to Hackers targeted US government satellites, Congressional report claims

  1. Michael · 1089 days ago

    Not much in the way of evidence in Bloomberg's article. Just a claim the satellites were 'interfered with', and a liberal use of 'hackers might do this', 'hackers did that'. It gives a lot of space for different interpretations.
    If they provided something more specific, I might it's more than a typical digital horror story.

  2. Per A. · 1089 days ago

    And the Norwegians responsible for the Spitsbergen ground stations claim that a) no traces of any hacking, and b) NASA seems not to know that any satellites we tampered with....so is this just some whishfull thinking about fiendish plots that might have happened and looks good in a report, or was the really some hacking attempts?

    • Michael · 1088 days ago

      I cannot find anything to substantiate the claims, so I reckon they're telling porkies.

  3. Richard · 1088 days ago

    "... the stuff of James Bond ..."
    "... the imagination of a Hollywood scriptwriter."

    I didn't realize the British author, journalist and Naval Intelligence Officer, Ian Lancaster Fleming, had also been a Hollywood scriptwriter! :o)

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About the author

Graham Cluley runs his own award-winning computer security blog, and is a veteran of the anti-virus industry having worked for a number of security companies since the early 1990s. Now an independent security analyst, he regularly makes media appearances and gives computer security presentations. Send Graham an email, subscribe to his updates on Facebook, follow him on Twitter and App.net, and circle him on Google Plus for regular updates.