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China May Have Hacked U.S. Satellites

by John Reed on October 28, 2011

In case you haven’t see it, numerous news reports emerged this week claiming China may have messed with two U.S. government satellites  by hacking their control station in Norway.

Apparently, hackers gained access to the Landsat-7 (shown above) and Terra AM-1 satellites — both used to monitor climate change and map the Earth’s terrain — four times in 2007 and 2008, according to a draft of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission’s annual report. Landsat-7 experienced 12 minutes of “interference” in October 2007 and July 2008 while Terra AM-1 was “interfered with” for two minutes in June, 2008 and again for nine minutes that October.

The attackers gained access to the U.S. satellites by hacking a control station in Norway, according to the report which doesn’t elaborate on the ‘interference.”

It does however, say that “such interference poses numerous potential threats, particularly if achieved against satellites with more sensitive functions,” according to Bloomberg. “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.”

Now, the draft doesn’t specifically call China out on the hacks but it does say they are consistent with recent Chinese military writings that call for disabling a rival’s satellites. The draft apparently goes on to say that China is suspected to be behind a number of malicious cyber incidents against the U.S. in the past year, no surprise there. We’ve been hearing all about suspected Chinese government hacking for years now.

The only bright side to this news is the fact that the satellites were hacked back in 2007 and 2008 — a time when the Pentagon was only starting to get smart on cyber war. Furthermore, these were NASA sats, not Pentagon birds, so they may not have been as well protected as their military counterparts. In the years since, we’ve watched the military get serious about the almost-sisyphean task of protecting its networks and satellites from cyber attacks. The downside of this is that China has also had four years — an eternity in the cyber arena — to improve its hacking skills and learn from the knowledge gained by hacking those satellites.

As the man in charge of the U.S.’ spy satellites, National Reconnaissance Office Director Bruce Carlson, recently said of China and space warfare: “I’d be a lot happier if knew exactly what their intent was. They’re an incredibly modern society but their military philosophy goes all the way back to probably, 4,000 years ago. They believe in deception, that’s just one of their mantras so I remain concerned about their intent, and exactly what it is, I do not know — but I’m concerned about it.”

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