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Hackers commandeer US government satellites

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Hackers interfered with two US government satellites on four separate occasions in 2007 and 2008, according to a report scheduled to be released next month by a congressional commission.

In June 2008 and again in October of the same year, a Terra AM-1 earth observation satellite operated by NASA experienced interference at the hands of hackers, Bloomberg Businessweek reported, citing the unreleased report. The draft doesn't elaborate on the interference, but it said the sessions lasted two minutes in the first incident and nine minutes in the second incident.

It also said "the responsible party achieved all steps required to command the satellite," although the hackers didn't actually exercise control over the craft.

A Landsat-7 earth observation satellite jointly managed by NASA and the US Geological Survey was commandeered for 12 minutes or longer on two occasions in October 2007 and July 2008, the report stated.

Both crafts use the commercially operated Svalbard Satellite Station in Spitsbergen, Norway, which "routinely relies on the internet for data access and file transfers," the report said. That has led to speculation the attackers may have hacked the internet connection to take control of the satellites.

"Such interference poses numerous potential threats, particularly if achieved against satellites with more sensitive functions," the draft report warns. "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."

The annual report by the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission goes on to say the breaches are consistent with the activities of China's military. The draft concedes that there's no hard proof of a direct connection, but recites a litany of other hacks in the recent past it claims suggest that China has "conducted and supported a range of malicious cyber activities."

Among them are allegations of an attack on the website of the outlawed Falun Gong spiritual group, based on video footage contained in a newscast aired on China Central Television 7. It also refers to a March 22 incident, in which US internet traffic was "improperly" redirected through a network controlled by the China Telecom Corp. Ltd. That's almost certainly a reference to a brief diversion of internet traffic sent between Facebook and subscribers to AT&T's internet service. ®

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