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2.16.19
Future Society

Hackers Find Earth’s Satellite Communication Systems Aren’t All That Secure

August 13th 18__Kristin Houser__Filed Under: Future Society
NASA/Victor Tangermann

DANGEROUSLY DEPENDENT. Beyoncé, we love you, but you’re wrong. Girls don’t run the world — satellite communication systems (SATCOMs) do. These systems let us send and receive information across the globe; they power our internet, televisions, telephones, radios, military operations, and more.

Right now, more than 2,000 communications satellites are orbiting the Earth, and according to cybersecurity company IOActive, they are disturbingly easy to hack

A TRIO OF TARGETS. On Thursday, IOActive’s Ruben Santamarta presented “Last Call for SATCOM Security” at enterprise security convention Black Hat. In that study, Santamarta details how hackers could exploit existing SATCOM vulnerabilities to affect the aviation, maritime, and military industries. And the potential impact of these hacks ranges from mildly inconvenient to downright scary.

In the aviation industry, Santamarta notes that hackers could remotely disrupt, intercept, or modify InFlight WiFi systems, attack the devices of flight crews and passengers, and control SATCOM antenna positioning and transmissions.

Hackers could also control SATCOM antenna positioning and transmissions in the maritime industry, writes Santamarta, attack crew members’ devices and disrupt, intercept, or modify ships’ onboard satellite communications.

As for the military, hackers could conceivably pinpoint military units’ locations and disrupt, intercept, or modify their onboard satellite communications.

Perhaps most disturbingly, hackers targeting the maritime or military industries could manipulate a SATCOM’s High Intensity Radiated Fields (HIRF) to “provoke malfunctions in critical navigation systems or even health damages to persons exposed to this kind of non-ionizing RF,” according to Santamarta.

LAST CALL. Plenty of research asserts that SATCOMs are simply too easy to hack — Santamarta himself presented another such study back in 2014. And yet the vulnerabilities persist, mainly because they’re just simply hard to address. In some cases, the only solution is to replace the SATCOM altogether.

Researchers like Santamarta and companies like IOActive can help companies and governments shore up their existing SATCOMs as much as possible and ensure future ones don’t have the same vulnerabilities. But for now, it looks like these vulnerabilities will simply continue to hang over our heads. 

READ MORE: Hack the Planet: Vulnerabilities Unearthed in Satellite Systems Used Around the Globe [TechCrunch]

More on satellites: New Satellite Will Shift Shape While in Space