Air Force's D.I.Y. Satellite Hackers


The Bush administration is warning about "threats by terrorist groups and other nations against U.S. commercial and military satellites," the AP reports.space_chop_logo.JPG

"A number of countries are exploring and acquiring capabilities to counter, attack, and defeat U.S. space systems," Undersecretary of State Robert G. Joseph... the senior arms control official at the State Department... said....He said terrorists and enemy states might view the U.S. space program as "a highly lucrative target," while sophisticated technologies could improve their ability to interfere with U.S. space systems and services.Joseph did not identify terror groups or nations that might have such motives.
Nor, apparently, did Joseph mention that the Air Force already has a team of satellite-attackers in place, who's job is to replicate terror strikes -- using nothing but gadgets they can pick up at Radio Shack. My Popular Mechanics article explains:
Three or four times a year, small groups of junior officers gather at an Air Force Research Laboratory facility in New Mexico and try to figure out how to take down an American satellite using nothing more than sweet talk and off-the-shelf gear.The U.S. military relies on satellites to relay orders, guide precision bombs and direct flying drones. But those multibillion-dollar systems can be surprisingly vulnerable to the simplest of attacks. So, its up to the members of the Space Countermeasures Hands On Program Space CHOP, for short to find those weaknesses before enemies have a chance to crack them.Space CHOP was formed in 1999, and one of its earliest experiments used a UHF generator and a small amplifier purchased from an electronics store. The team pieced together an antenna out of copper wire, PVC piping and other easily obtained materials. (The Air Force wont elaborate on Space CHOP hardware or targets.) By aiming the antenna at the sky and turning on just a few milliwatts of power, the team showed it could block signals from a military communications satellite.We demonstrated that a few unsophisticated guys with a few thousand dollars worth of equipment could interfere with a seriously sophisticated satellite system, says John Holbrook, Space CHOPs program manager. If we had turned on full power, we wouldve knocked [the system] out.More often than not, the Space CHOP team doesnt need any equipment to uncover a vulnerability. They scour the Internet for potentially damaging information. They case out Air Force bases. Or, posing as graduate students, they pump defense contractors and military officers for information until theyve figured out a way to take down a satellite or its link on the ground.The military also has personnel known as red teams full-time mock adversaries who specialize in cyberattacks Holbrook notes. But his team of outsiders often finds vulnerabilities that the red teams miss. Were experts in not being experts, Holbrook says with a laugh.
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