April Fool: Shatner virus planted by hackers on orbiting satellite

"We published this story on 1 April 2009. Of course, the Shatner virus doesn’t really exist, and Far Polo L1 is an anagram of Apr1l Fool. We hope you enjoy the joke (and the video!) as much as we enjoyed putting it together."

IT security and control firm Sophos has discovered that hackers have successfully infected an orbiting communications satellite with a virus, and are interfering with television broadcasts.

The Far Polo L1 satellite, placed in geostationary orbit to broadcast TV programs to a global audience, appears to have been infected by a virus known as W32/Shatner. Under the control of sci-fi obsessed hackers, the Shatner virus is embedding subliminal images related to Star Trek into popular television programs such as “The Simpsons”, “Friends” and “Doogie Howser MD” as they are beamed down to viewers on Earth.

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(The video can also be watched on YouTube)

Subliminal images placed into the TV programs include images of legendary Star Trek villains the Klingons and actor William Shatner, with the message

"This is W32/Shatner. All your TV are belong to us".

Shatner virus collage

At the moment these messages seem to be taking the form of digital graffiti, tagging popular shows with their messages as they prove their abilities to interfere with TV broadcasting.

But the potential danger is far greater. You can imagine that this kind of tampering could be used to inject adverts for sex-enhancement drugs, Russian brides or fake college degrees, or spew out religious or political propaganda, or worst of all, use advanced subliminal techniques to hypnotise viewers.

What the hackers are planning with this current attack is not entirely clear it may be that the images of Klingons and William Shatner are an attempt to persuade the public to watch the original 1960s Star Trek episodes.

Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised to see orbiting communications satellites targeted by hackers. After all, security software has been constantly getting better at stopping spam from reaching users’ inboxes, and criminals have been looking for alternative ways to get their unwanted messages in front of people.

At the moment the hackers can only embed images for a split second, but if they manage to take complete control over TV broadcasts they could begin to advertise to hundreds of millions of people worldwide.

SophosLabs is currently working around the clock to address the problem, and we are asking TV viewers who believe they have seen affected shows to send their evidence to shatner-response@sophos.com.

In the interim I guess that anyone who is concerned about the subliminal messages could blink frequently or rapidly change the TV channel.

Of course, this isn’t the first time that we have seen a virus in outer space. Last year there were reports of infected laptops on the International Space Station, but this is the first time that a communications satellite has been under the control of an unauthorised third party to send messages to viewers below.