Some interesting news in the world of telecommunications broke last week. You may have heard that Starlink’s internet system was hacked into. It wasn’t hacked into by any major force of technology either. According to reports, all that was needed was $25 worth of equipment. Let’s give you a little context.
Starlink is a satellite internet constellation.
It is operated by SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies Corp.) which is an American spacecraft manufacturer, space launch provider and satellite communications corporation. Multi-billionaire, Elon Musk is the CEO and Chairman and has been since 2002.
SpaceX started launching Starlink satellites in 2019 and currently has nearly 3,000 mass-produced small satellites in low Earth orbit. The company provides internet access to over 500,000 subscribers. Starlink certainly sounds like a big deal, doesn’t it? So how exactly did a hacker utilize just $25 worth of parts to create a tool that hacked Starlink’s satellite dishes?
As Matt Burgess of WIRED reports, the hacker was Lennert Wouters.
He’s a security researcher at KU Leuven University in Belgium. At the recent Black Hat security conference in Las Vegas, Wouters detailed how a series of hardware vulnerabilities can allow attackers to access the Starlink system and run custom code on the devices.
“To access the satellite dish’s software, Wouters physically stripped down a dish he purchased and created a custom hacking tool that can be attached to the Starlink dish,” explains Burgess, “The hacking tool, a custom circuit board known as a modchip, uses off-the-shelf parts that cost around $25. Once attached to the Starlink dish, the homemade printed circuit board (PCB) is able to launch a fault injection attack—temporarily shorting the system—to help bypass Starlink’s security protections.”
This ‘glitch’, confirms Burgess, allowed Wouters to get into previously locked parts of the Starlink system.
The story certainly intrigued MeloTel’s CEO, John Meloche.
After reading Burgess’ WIRED report, he alerted the MeloTel team that some people were actually freaking out over the hacking. Considering the news somewhat humorous, John decided to create a little meme to reflect his thoughts. You can see it above.
“Starlink finally responded to the news they were hacked,” jokes John’s meme. The image showcases a hat, seemingly made out of tin foil, adorning one of Starlink’s satellites. They satellites have been dubbed “Dishy McFlatface”. “$99 Special Edition Firewall” reads John’s punchline at the bottom of the meme.
John also offered his team a little context to explain his creation.
“It cost a researcher only $25 worth of parts to create a tool that allows custom code to run on the satellite dishes,” he told us, “To do this, you will need a heat gun, prying tools, isopropyl alcohol, and a lot of patience. You literally have to remove the large metal cover from the dish and access its internal components. The modchip requires soldering to the Starlink and connecting it using a few wires.”
“So basically,” John continued, “Someone would need to climb your mast/pole, completely disassemble your dish while installed, solder a device to the dish and then reboot it. While the attack isn’t as devastating as being able to take down satellite systems or connectivity, the hack basically can be used to learn more about how the Starlink network operates.”