Space: It's Quiet Out There, Too Quiet

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May 7, 2007: China is being very quiet about hackers who took control of a satellite television channel on May 1st. For about 90 minutes, the government had no control over the feed, which was taken over by some anti-government rants. The government has gone out of its way to try and keep mention of the incident out of the news. Because over 130 million Chinese have access to the Internet, and even more have cell phones, it's impossible to completely black out stories like this. Ah, for the good old days. But the bureaucrats are quite upset about this incident. Over the last five years, there have been over a dozen incidents of hijacking satellite television signals. Several of these took place in China, but the government assured everyone that the "problem" was fixed. Oops.

The increasing number of incidents of space satellites being "hacked", is actually just an increase in the number of satellites up there, and the number of ground stations broadcasting information up into the sky. Most of these "hacks" are just satellite signals interfering with one another. Same with cases where people believe their GPS or satellite communications signals are being jammed. On further investigation, the real reasons tend to be less interesting, and a lot more technical. All this usually has a large element of human error mixed in.

The recent China incident, however, appears to indicate a security problem. If you have the proper passwords and security information, you can send commands to the satellite, and do whatever you want. The most likely problem the Chinese had recently, was a security problem. To the Chinese, that is more frightening than, well, just about anything.

All of this accidental jamming, only demonstrates how easy it would be to do it on purpose, and there have been a few examples of that. In response, the U.S. Air Force, which has taken the lead in developing electronic tools for attacking, and defending, satellite communications, and the satellites themselves, has been training people to attack, and defend, space satellites. This effort involves figuring out new, or improved, ways to jam satellites. Then you keep that stuff secret, in case potential enemies have not figured this out themselves. Next, you work on ways to defeat the weapons developed. Most of this is playing around with the signals themselves. You can unjam a jamming signal with another signal. However, a lot of trial and error is required, and you want to get that done way in advance of any actual war. When you do have to use this stuff for real, you have to expect that the enemy may well have come up with some angle you missed. Thus there will be some rapid improvisation, and you will have more time and resources for this if you have worked out, ahead of time, the details of disasters you have already anticipated. No one is releasing much information about this, for obvious reasons. There won't be much discussion from any government, unless there is a terrorist attack using these techniques. That's yet another thing to worry about.

Sometimes there is government jamming. Back in July, 2003, satellite broadcasters transmitting television shows to Iran found their signals being jammed. The source of the jamming was quickly traced to Cuba. A satellite signal is very difficult to jam as it comes down from the satellite. But if you are close to the ground station that beams the signal up to the satellite, you can more easily interfere with that. At first it was thought that the Cuban government, using an old Soviet era electronic eavesdropping facility outside Havana, were doing the jamming as a favor to Iran (which buys Cuban support with supplies of cut rate oil.) The Chinese now run the old Soviet facility. The Cuban government denied it had anything to do with the jamming and said it would find out where the jamming was coming from, and they did. By August 20th, the Cuban government reported that they had traced the jamming signal to a suburban compound owned by the Iranian embassy. The Cubans ordered the jamming to stop, and it did.

 


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