Hackers prove it doesn’t take much to hijack a dead satellite

The decommissioned satellite was used to broadcast movies and a conference.
Stock image of a satellite orbiting above the Earth with the moon in the background
Space satellite orbiting the earth. Elements of this image furnished by NASA. Deposit Photos

With only a $300 piece of equipment and (legal) access to an uplink station, you, too, can broadcast WarGames from a decommissioned Canadian satellite—that’s what hacking enthusiast Karl Koscher showed everyone over the weekend at the annual Def Con hacker meetup in Las Vegas. As a new writeup from Motherboard details, after being granted access to an abandoned uplink facility, Koscher and friends used a software defined radio called a Hack RF to connect with Canada’s defunct Anik F1R satellite last year and “have some fun with it.”

After 15 years of loyal service, the telecommunications satellite in geostationary orbit roughly 22,236 miles above the Earth was put out to pasture in 2020, with subsequent plans to then move it into a “graveyard orbit” in November 2021. In that window of purgatory, however, Koscher and fellow buddies within the hacking group, ShadyTel, obtained both a license to use an out-of-use uplink facility along with the Anik F1R satellite’s transponder lease.

[Related: Ball Corp’s unlikely journey from soda cans to satellites.]

“What do you do with a satellite? What does a hacker do with a satellite?” Koscher told Motherboard. “… We had an opportunity to use a satellite that was being decommissioned… We also had the ability to put our own content on there.”

Which, of course, is exactly what Koscher and crew did. Utilizing their new satellite, the group was able to stream the talks from that year’s ToorCon hacking conference in San Diego during the day while showing fan favorite films at night. Extra bandwidth also allowed them to set up a phone conference line with a dedicated number to call and broadcast across the continent.

Koscher went on to explain how satellites essentially just reflect whatever signals are beamed their way. “There’s no authentication or anything,” he said at the time. Although you hypothetically would need a stronger signal than anyone else trying to broadcast to a satellite, abandoned ones provide a unique and simplified opportunity for anyone looking to hack the planet.