One solo security researcher was able to successfully hack the SpaceX Starlink satellite internet system. As if that is not amazing enough, Belgian researcher Lennert Wouters was able to achieve this breach using a homemade chipset that cost around $25.
Speaking at Black Hat, Wouters confirmed he was able to conduct a voltage fault injection attack on a Starlink User Terminal (UT). This is a SpaceX-operated satellite dish that allows people to connect to the system.
Wouters says he was able to enter the system and look through the network. He presented the successful hack in a presentation titled “Glitched on Earth by Humans” at the 2022 version of the yearly ethical hacking conference.
To achieve his hack, Wouters purchased a Starlink dish and built his own custom modchip board to attach to it. In a report from Wired that delves into the hack, Wouters explains how he created the modchip for little cost by simply buying off-the-shelf components. In total, the hacker says he spent around $25 building the board.
He then got root access by creating a glitch in the Starlink UTsecurity operations bootroom. The modechip is interesting because Wouters specifically designed it to fit over the existing board on the Starlink dish. It features a Raspberry Pi microcontroller, switches, a voltage regulator, and a flash storage component on the existing PCB.
When it was attached, the modchip started a fault injection attack that could short the system momentarily. This was the window needed to bypass the security protocols, allowing Wouters to gain access to the secure parts of the system.
“Our attack results in an unfixable compromise of the Starlink UT and allows us to execute arbitrary code,” Wouters wrote. “The ability to obtain root access on the Starlink UT is a prerequisite to freely explore the Starlink network.”
If you’re unfamiliar with Starlink, it is developed by SpaceX and is a low Earth orbit network of satellites that has the goal of providing internet to the whole world. It currently involves 3,000 small orbital satellites.
SpaceX acknowledged Wouters’ work in a six-page paper. The company says it welcomes such hacks and tells researchers to “bring on the bugs” as a way to shore up the system. Furthermore, the company says the hack was “technically impressive.”
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