Satellite terminals widely used in transportation, military, and industrial plants contain backdoors, hardcoded credentials, weak encryption algorithms, and other design flaws, a new report says.
Critical design flaws have been discovered in the firmware of popular satellite land equipment that could allow attackers to hijack and disrupt communications links to ships, airplanes, military operations, industrial facilities, and emergency services.
If just one of these thousands of devices were to be compromised, the entire satellite telecommunications infrastructure could be in danger, according to research published today.
In some cases, an attacker need only send an SMS text message to launch an attack. "You could attack one of these devices with SMS, and trigger features to install new firmware or to compromise it," says Ruben Santamarta, principal security consultant for IOActive, who discovered the security flaws last fall and published a report on his findings today. An SMS from one ship to another could compromise some satellite communications, the report says.
"Attackers who compromise the database of an Inmarsat SIM/Terminals reseller can use this information to remotely compromise all those terminals," he says.
Santamarta dug up numerous design flaws in satellite ground terminal equipment from Harris Corp., Hughes, Thuraya, Cobham, JRC, and Iridium. The flaws include hardcoded credentials, undocumented protocols, insecure protocols, backdoors, and weak password reset features. He reported his findings to the CERT Coordination Center, which in turn alerted the affected vendors in January. But to date, just one vendor -- Iridium -- has responded to the alerts and is working on fixes.
"In most cases, attackers can completely compromise" the system, Santamarta says. "They could run their own code, install malicious firmware... and do anything they want with that device."
An attacker could disrupt satellite communication to a ship or aircraft, he says, potentially wreaking catastrophic damages. "They can spoof messages and trick the ship to follow a certain path, or to rescue another ship. They can disrupt communications... if a vessel can't send a distress signal, that's the worst scenario, if a ship can't communicate."
The same would be true for an airplane, he says. And an attacker would not even need physical access to the satellite equipment to pull off a link hijack or spoof; in many cases, hackers could execute their attacks remotely.
Santamarta found the flaws after downloading and reverse engineering the firmware for the systems. "I wasn't looking for memory or buffer overflow or other typical vulnerabilities. But design flaws [found] like backdoors or [weak] protocols are in a way more dangerous because you can reach the device" by using them.