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Hacking Satellite Feeds For Fun

An expert shows how to capture and analyze satellite signals.
February 24, 2009

Adam Laurie, a UK-based security researcher, shed light on an unusual hobby in a talk entitled “Satellite Hacking for Fun and Profit”, given at the Black Hat DC computer-security conference held in Washington, D.C last week.

Laurie described a series of tools that he’s developed over the past decade or so for picking up and analyzing satellites feeds. For instance, visualization software that processes the frequencies of detectable satellite signals to map their locations in the sky. Studying the resulting images reveals some interesting stuff. For example, a thick band of frequencies in one position in the sky is most likely a a commercial satellite, Laurie said, since it “wanted to be found.”

By tapping in to one feed around the time of the death of Princess Diana, Laurie said he was able to view live video set up by a group of television journalists, intended for the station that employed them. Some of the time, he would catch their official broadcasts as they were giving them, but he was also be able to watch when the camera sat forgotten in the corner. “We were getting raw, unfiltered news in real-time,” Laurie said.

Laurie’s understanding of the satellite technology might not be comprehensive–one audience member asked him a question about the technical specifications of the dish he uses, and he laughed and shook his head. But still, he gave us a live demonstration of a hacked Dreambox satellite decoder that can be used to glean information about many of the feeds in the sky. He showed that he could read data being transmitted using equipment that costs about $785.

Hackers often get associated with attacking or breaking software and hardware, but the fundamental hacker mentality is that of a curious explorer. Phone phreaking, a subculture that was in many ways a precursor to hacking, thrived in the ’70s and early ’80s on exploring what could be found out about the phone system through exploration (The Best of 2600: A Hacker Odyssey gives an excellent historical view of phone phreakers and the hackers who came after them). Laurie’s work is a clear descendant of that era.

Still, Laurie said that he has careful not to access sensitive data. But he also joked that “the trouble with this stuff is, you don’t know if it’s intended for you until after you look at it.”

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